Author: Robert Macleod and Jeff Gray
For years, it was a right of passage at the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring training camp here. Manager John Gibbons would earnestly proclaim that he was finally giving up smokeless tobacco, a personal ban that would usually only last a couple of weeks before he would be seen “dipping” once again.
It is a terrible habit, Gibbons will tell you, and that’s the reason he said he would support a City of Toronto proposal to prohibit the use of chewing tobacco at all public parks, baseball fields and hockey rinks. The prohibition would also apply at Rogers Centre, where many of the players openly use chewing tobacco.
“Tobacco’s a nasty habit,” Gibbons said. “I did it for a long, long time. I’m not proud of that. And whatever they can do to get rid of it, especially kids from doing any of that, I’m all for it.”
Toronto’s proposal to ban chewing tobacco is being spearheaded by Councillor Joe Mihevc, who is chairman of the city’s board of health. Mihevc says he intends to introduce a motion at the board’s March 21 meeting asking that officials study a potential ban that’s being supported by the Canadian Cancer Society and various anti-tobacco groups.
“Professional athletes are role models for young people,” he said, “and we need to make sure they are not promoting bad habits or tobacco use as a part of sports culture.”
Mihevc cited statistics that show a rising number of students across Ontario in Grades 7 to 12 are using smokeless tobacco, with one survey estimating that it is being used by 6 per cent of students in this age group. That number is up from 4.6 per cent in 2011. It means an estimated 58,200 students could be using it across the province, although the survey suggests use in Toronto is much lower, at 3 per cent.
Cancer researchers and health experts say chewing tobacco causes oral, pancreatic and esophageal cancer, as well as lesions in the mouth and tooth decay.
Mihevc announced his intentions at a news conference at Toronto’s City Hall on Monday attended by anti-tobacco campaigners and representatives from the Canadian Cancer Society. Also in attendance was Stephen Brooks, senior vice-president of business operations with the Blue Jays. Mihevc praised the Blue Jays and Major League Baseball for their support. Brooks said the club’s management backs the idea of a ban, something that city officials in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles have already done.
He said MLB cannot bring in a league-wide ban unless it negotiates one into the players’ collective agreement. However, players and coaches are expected to abide by local bylaws wherever they happen to be playing. Brooks acknowledged there could some resistance from players, but declined to say which Blue Jays players use chewing tobacco.
“While certainly, I’m sure there will be pushback from players, this is very much in the spirit of what Major League Baseball has been advocating,” Brooks said.
Mihevc said he doubted bylaw officers would actually be deployed into the Blue Jays’ and visitors’ dugouts to make sure players were adhering to the law should it be enacted. He said the bylaw would be enforced as most bylaws are actually enforced – through conversations between citizens and social pressure.
Michael Perley, director of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco, said it is not just baseball where chewing tobacco has a long history; the habit is also common among amateur hockey players. This is despite bans, he said, by the National Hockey League, the Greater Toronto Hockey League and Baseball Ontario. Bylaws would strengthen league policies, he said.
For Gibbons, it took a lot to finally give up chewing tobacco, but he is happy he did. He is closing in on the second anniversary of going tobacco-free. He said the death in June, 2014, of former MLB great Tony Gwynn prompted him to get serious about quitting.
Gwynn was only 54 when he died after battling parotid (mouth) cancer, an illness he always maintained was caused by a chewing tobacco habit he picked up during his playing career.