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The Riggs Report: Choosing not to chew

New bill tries to divorce baseball from smokeless tobacco

Here’s something for them to chew on at the Capitol—or not. Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, is carrying a bill that seeks, in effect, to upend a piece of baseball culture by banning chewing tobacco at all of California’s baseball stadiums. The idea? Stop role models from passing on a dangerous habit.

Major League Baseball has been moving to distance itself from the use of smokeless tobacco by players, asking them to keep cans out of sight and to use discretion when they’re indulging in the habit. But the big leagues haven’t banned its use, as is the case in the minors, since it’s a collective bargaining issue that would have to be negotiated with the players’ union.

The harmful effects of smokeless tobacco have been a big part of public dialogue, ever since the untimely death of San Diego Padres great Tony Gwynn last year. Gwynn, who played 20 years with the Padres and was a 15-time All-Star, was diagnosed with oral cancer that he said he believed was due to his long tobacco habit. He was only 54 at the time of his death.

“I think it was a big wake-up call for players, when you see one of the greatest baseball players of all time succumb to cancer because of the addiction he had,” said Mike Gazda, who spent nine years in the major leagues as a media communications executive with the Florida Marlins and the Washington Nationals.

But Gazda, who is now a work colleague of mine, told me there are going to be difficulties with enforcing a ban, despite the obvious health concerns. Players, he said, are very routine-oriented and often resistant to changing their patterns, especially if they’ve been using smokeless tobacco for years.

“It’s an addictive drug,” Gazda said. “When it becomes part of your routine, it’s difficult to break that habit. You can’t just shut it off for the three days you’re in California playing a California team.”

Thurmond’s bill would ban all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, in California stadiums. That means no use of chewing tobacco not just on the field or in the dugout, but in the stands.

But political consultant Steve Maviglio told me fans are not the target.

“The legislation is designed at the players,” Maviglio said. “They stop chewing and kids stop emulating their heroes. Enforcement of anti-smoking regulations of all kinds has always been a challenge, but when a TV camera does a close-up of a player violating the law, players won’t be able to hide.”

California would be the first state to impose such a ban on a practice that Maviglio calls “indefensible.”

But passing this kind of legislation is going to be difficult, given the tremendous influence the tobacco industry holds at the state Capitol.

According to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, the tobacco lobby has spent $63 million on campaign contributions and lobbying efforts in the past five years.

The American Cancer Society has launched an effort to get lawmakers to swear off tobacco contributions. Just like using smokeless tobacco, it’s a habit that’s hard to break.