Years of chewing tobacco may have cut short San Diego Padres Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn’s life at age 54, says one local tobacco expert. Gwynn died Monday after a battle with salivary gland cancer.
“Considering where his cancer was in his mouth and cheeks, it’s very likely that’s where the chewing tobacco sat for hours and hours at a time,” explained Patrica Folan, RN, director of the Center for Tobacco Control for the North Shore-LIJ Health System. “And, if he’s been using it for years, it most likely is the cause of his cancer.”
Gwynn, who was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in 2007, has long attributed his use of chewing tobacco, also known as smokeless tobacco, to his cancer. During the last four years, Gwynn had surgery for cancer in a salivary gland and in his cheeks.
Earlier this year, Gwynn had to leave his position as head baseball coach at San Diego State University because of his health.
For many young people, especially those in sports, part of the allure of smokeless tobacco is the mistaken belief that it won’t harm their life or their game.
“It has all the 7,000 chemicals that are in regular cigarettes and it can cause cancer just like the tobacco that you smoke,” said Ms. Folan.
“It’s just a little different in that you don’t inhale it into your lungs, so it may not impact your lungs or your respiratory system, and that’s why sports figures use it a lot of the time. They think it won’t decrease their stamina, especially in baseball where the game can go on for a very long time and it can stimulate them to stay awake and perform better.”
Gwynn’s notoriety in the sports world, and his acknowledgement of his unhealthy habit’s link to his disease, may discourage future users, said Ms. Folan.
“It highlights the fact that smokeless tobacco use doesn’t come without harm, grave harm.”