Strasburg's quitting (tobacco) ... but who cares?

January, 31, 2011
1/31/11
1:06
PM ET
Stephen Strasburg's not going to pitch for a while, and during his time off he's going to be a) rehabbing, and b) trying to quit chewing tobacco. We can only wish him the best in both endeavors, but history's probably going to forget the second ...
    For two decades, there has been a fight to educate players on the danger and eradicate smokeless tobacco from baseball, both for the health of players and for the health of children who watch and idolize them. Several congressional hearings, including one last April, have addressed the issue. Major League Baseball has urged players to not use it when on camera. Since 1993, all tobacco products have been banned in the minor leagues on fields, in clubhouses and during team travel. It's also banned in college and in every significant amateur association.

    And yet, experts say, the usage among major league players has remained steady. Roughly 33 percent of major league players, Connolly said, use some form of smokeless tobacco, a rate that has remained stagnant. More dispiriting, its use has risen among young males. The only significant increase of any tobacco product over the last five years, according to Connolly and other advocates, has been the use of smokeless among youths. It has increased to 25 percent, compared with 16 percent of the general population.

Look, I will grant you this: Major leaguers are adults, and we should do our best to avoid legislating their personal habits.

But you have to grant me this: If the Players Association had been running the show 40 years ago, the players would still be smoking cigarettes in the dugouts.

On some level, I'm sympathetic to the libertarian argument that if players want to smoke in the dugout during games, they should be allowed to smoke in the dugout during games. But does anyone except the strictest libertarians -- and a few smoking baseball players -- really believe that would be a good idea? Wouldn't the vast majority of observers agree that it would not be a good idea?

Of course, it's worth remembering that MLB probably didn't ban smoking in the dugout because anyone really cared about the example the players were setting; MLB cared because it was lousy public relations. I don't mean that as a knock, really; MLB has to worry about public relations, just like any other business concern with an extraordinarily public face.

My point is that nobody who matters is really going to care about smokeless tobacco until it's lousy public relations, and to this point it just hasn't been and I don't know how that's going to change. I mean, maybe if Tony Gwynn had actually died as a result of malignant cancer, somebody would care. But probably not.

You think anyone at MLB cares? You might, because they do pay some lip service to the issue. MLB's Rob Manfred says, "What I will tell you is that smokeless tobacco remains a significant concern to Major League Baseball. Generally, our minor league policy reflects where we're we'd like to be."

The minor league policy? Since 1993, "all tobacco products have been banned in the minor leagues on fields, in clubhouses and during team travel." Sounds great, right? Except in the actual world, something like one-fourth of all minor leaguers routinely use smokeless tobacco at the ballpark, since the ban is difficult to enforce and nobody tries real hard anyway. The minor league policy is mostly a joke to the players. Just in case you were hoping the "policy" is breaking the kids of that disgusting habit.

Stephen Strasburg's heart really seems to be in the right place, and I wish him well. If he's able to quit, that'll be one down and 399 to go.

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