New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey wrote a glowing profile of baseball legend Joe Garagiola on Sunday highlighting Garagiola's tireless campaign to protect today's players from chewing tobacco. Garagiola's passion and commitment on the issue shines through. He talks about his personal use of "chew" when he was a young baseball player in the 1940s and then describes how he quit immediately when his young daughter came home from school and asked if he was going to die because he used tobacco.
It's easy to be moved by Garagiola's mission, especially when he talks about the friends he has lost and the funerals he has attended because of tobacco use. While I understand and appreciate Garagiola's commitment and feel his pain from losing friends, I have to say that his anti-chew campaign may ultimately cause more harm than good.
There is a major debate in the anti-smoking world about the role of smokeless tobacco. 60 Minutes did a thoughtful and balanced piece in April that let both sides explain the pros and cons of smokeless tobacco. There are those like Garagiola, who want people to abstain from all tobacco use. They argue that people who use chew or smokeless tobacco products such as Snus are trading one addiction for another and are still facing risk of cancer.
On the other side, there are people like Dr. Karl Fagerstrom, a nicotine addiction scientist who has helped people quit smoking for 35 years, who advocate for smokeless tobacco as a harm reduction strategy. They point out that the smoke entering someone's lungs, rather than the tobacco itself, poses a much greater risk of cancer. In an ideal world, people would be able to quit all forms of tobacco, but if someone doesn't want to or can't, smokeless tobacco is 90 to 99 times safer than cigarettes.
Garagiola speaks with pride when he tells of traveling to DC to testify against smokeless tobacco. Garagiola describes taking on advocates of smokeless tobacco: "They tell you it's a safe alternative, but my answer is, 'Hey, don't jump out of the 50th floor, jump out of the 25th floor. You got 25 floors on our side.' The results are going to be the same."
That is a great soundbite, but Garagiola is wrong. While all tobacco use can indeed be harmful, it is indisputable that people addicted to nicotine are better off using smokeless tobacco than inhaling it into their lungs. By equating the two forms of nicotine and likening both to a death sentence, Garagiola is spreading inaccurate information that may discourage people from using the safer form - and, in the end, causing more people to get cancer and die.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)
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