With his hand buried in the glove, a pitcher stands on the mound, spits and throws the pitch. This image is nothing new. Chewing tobacco has long been associated with baseball - the connection is prevalent, and the message it sends toward youth may be even worse.
Smokeless tobacco not only causes a host of health problems but also leads to awful tobacco breath, addiction and stained smiles. One thing's for certain: The consequences are severe.
In June 2014, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn died after a multi-year battle with salivary gland cancer. Gwynn, who spent his entire Major League Baseball career with the San Diego Padres and was known as Mr. Padre, said the cancer was brought on by smokeless tobacco. In nearly all of his photos, a pinch - or a pouch - of chewing tobacco can be seen on the right side of his smile.
Without a doubt, tobacco use is both a serious systemic health problem and an oral health problem.
Two months after Gwynn's passing, former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling revealed that he was battling squamous cell carcinoma. This illness is commonly linked to mouth cancer, which affects the lining of the mouth. Like many other cases, Schilling said he first discovered the cancer when he felt a lump in his neck, which was an enlarged lymph node.
"I do believe, without a doubt, unquestionably that chewing was what gave me cancer," Schilling said in a news release. Schilling was a legendary MLB pitcher for 20 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks and Boston Red Sox. The six-time all-star won two World Series titles with the Red Sox and one with the Diamondbacks.
Tobacco's oral effects
Tobacco ruins the mouth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smokeless tobacco contains 28 carcinogens that can cause gum disease, stained teeth and tongue, slow healing after a tooth extraction, dulled sense of taste and smell and, worst of all, oral cancer. The toxic chemicals damage cells, spurring uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. With squamous cell carcinoma, scaly red patches, open sores and elevated growths start to form.
Although cigarette smoking rates in the U.S. continue to decline, a CDC report indicated that the use of smokeless tobacco has remained steady over the past nine years. According to the National Institutes of Health, smokeless tobacco delivers more nicotine than cigarettes and stays in the blood stream longer. As bad as it is, the habit is extremely hard to shake.
After dipping or chewing, the mouth becomes drier as a side effect. Once dry, the palate becomes even a more fertile environment for anaerobic bacteria, which are normally washed away by saliva. These bacteria create volatile sulfur compounds that leave the mouth smelling rotten or sour.
Schilling, 47, said he spent six months in the hospital with a feeding tube, undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. The most painful part of the treatment, he said, was the radiation. He received five sessions per week for seven weeks. The recovery process caused him to lose 75 pounds because he experienced trouble swallowing.
Baseball's long, disgusting habit
Disgusting but widespread is a good way to characterize it. Thirty years ago, players would come to the ballpark with their bats, gloves, spikes and chew. Former Padres designated hitter Kurt Bevacqua, who played alongside Gwynn, told ESPN he used to watch team members eat meals with dip in their mouth. While some things have changed since then, bad habits die hard.
Tobacco is prohibited in the minor leagues and most levels of amateur baseball, but MLB players said the minor league tobacco ban is only casually enforced. Most of the time, coaches will look through a locker to see if player has chew, though that's the extent of it.
A 2012 CDC report showed that almost 12 percent of high school boys were using smokeless tobacco, a habit that tends to follow a man as he ages.
Red Sox manager John Farrell pointed out that the use of smokeless tobacco is not prohibited on the big league level, but rather protected by the players' collective bargaining agreement with the MLB. Starting in 2012, teams were required to have dentists screen players for signs of oral cancer.
Chemotherapy damages the mouth too
In Schilling's experience, the chemotherapy damaged his salivary glands.
"Recovery is a challenge," Schilling told ESPN. "There are so many things that are damaged during the process. I don't have any salivary glands, I can't taste anything and I can't smell anything right now. And there's no guarantee they'll come back."
Oral health equals overall health
The takeaway? Prevention is the best therapy. If you've never tried smokeless tobacco, don't. If you're hooked, work with health professionals to wean off of the habit.
The connection between oral health and overall health is widely researched. What happens in the mouth can influence the entire body, and oral cancer isn't the only medical risk from smokeless tobacco. Users have a heightened risk of heart disease, heart attacks, high blood pressure and strokes.
Though baseball's history with smokeless tobacco presents a deep, depressing snapshot, avoiding these products is necessary not just for healthy smiles, but for good overall health..
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