The Times West Virginian

Prep Sports

June 29, 2014

Smokeless tobacco an unfortunate trend among athletes

FAIRMONT — The recent passing of baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn has brought the risks of chewing tobacco back to the forefront of the baseball world.

While the San Diego Padres organization held a memorial for Gwynn last Thursday to celebrate a life cut short at the age of 54, the ever-growing issue of cancer remains present, even in the Mountain State.

According to studies by the Department of Health and Human Resources, “the leading cause of death and disease in West Virginia continues to be tobacco use, with high prevalence for both smoking and spit tobacco. Almost 4,000 West Virginia residents die each year from tobacco use and secondhand smoke exposure.”

While many don’t see the use of chewing tobacco as a huge risk in the area, as evident in the 36 percent of Times West Virginian readers who answered “I wasn’t aware chewing tobacco was a big deal in West Virginian” in a recent online poll, tobacco use is growing in West Virginia and Marion County.

In the same poll on the Times West Virginian website, 36 percent of readers said, “It’s been passed down from generation to generation. It’s just something West Virginians do.”

According to the DHHR, 14.4 percent of adults in Marion County use smokeless tobacco. In that same study, provided by the Health Statistics Center, West Virginia Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System in 2013, Marion County is one of 15 counties in West Virginia that holds a 15-19.9 usage percent.

Studies often show that tobacco, drug and alcohol use occur due to peer pressure. But when it comes down to chewing tobacco, the pressure may be coming from somewhere a bit closer.

“Honestly, I rub because my older cousin made me start going into my freshman year,” Quint Markley, a recent North Marion High School graduate, said of the subject. “I just never stopped.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2012 that about 3.5 percent of people aged 12 and older in the U.S. used smokeless tobacco. According to the report, use of smokeless tobacco was higher in younger age groups, with more than 5.5 percent of people aged 18 to 25 saying they were current users.

About 1 million people age 12 and older started using smokeless tobacco in the year before the survey, reports show, and an estimated 46 percent of the new users were younger than 18 when they first used it.

This data, supported by the CDC’s 2012 National Youth Tobacco Survey, found that use of smokeless tobacco among high school kids is even higher than for young adults.

Further, the top three reasons those youth gave for why they chewed was because of parent influence, peer pressure and social lifestyle influence.

Those reasons seem to apply in Marion County as well.

For athletes around Marion County, it’s a combination of the three, said Ryder Skarzinski, a recent graduate of Fairmont Senior High School.

“It’s an athletic thing. Coaches, dads, brothers, cousins do it, and it’s just a thing that is sadly passed down,” said Skarzinski, who played football and baseball for the Polar Bears. “It kind of is something that you want before a big game, though. I will say that.”

In the two weeks since Gwynn’s death, several articles have surfaced reassessing the issue in sports, specifically baseball. And most players tend to agree that putting in a “plug” or a “dip,” as it’s commonly referred to, will calm the nerves before an at-bat or a big game.

Despite rules that ban the use of chewing tobacco during high school and collegiate baseball games, chew has still found its way into the sport.

Joe Price, East Fairmont High School’s baseball coach and former Fairmont State assistant baseball coach, has been involved at both levels and has seen an increase of awareness of the risks involved with chewing tobacco.

“At Fairmont State we had a zero tolerance policy. Our head coach was very adamant about not using it because one of his good friends at West Liberty died from mouth cancer,” Price recalled of both his playing and coaching days with the Falcons. “We covered it in the first part of the fall when the kids got there. He told them that he had a firsthand account, and I think the guys really respected that.”

Even now at the high school level, Price believes that most coaches and umpires are doing their part to provide ample insight on the subject and enforcing the WVSSAC and state rules against the use of tobacco products on school ground and during sporting events.

“Given the year that I’ve been in the high school level, we haven’t had any issue with it,” Price said of his experiences as East Fairmont baseball coach this past season. “Honestly, I haven’t had to talk to them about it, but given the situation with Tony Gwynn just passing, this is a perfect opportunity to address it.

“But if a kid is going to sneak it, he’s going to sneak it. There’s ways around it, but when a kid puts a big chew in, it’s very evident and it needs addressed. If they want to do it, they’re going to find a way to do it. But it won’t be a problem at East Fairmont while I’m here; I can assure you that.”

While players like Skarzinski claim that chewing before a game can ease their mind, Markley feels that chewing tobacco has no place in sports.

“I don’t think it affects players if that’s what you mean. It’s just something to do to pass the time, I guess,” Markley, who played football and basketball for the Huskies, said. “It’s not something to do around the football field or basketball court. It’s just a bad habit for me.”

According to the CDC, West Virginia ranks fifth worst in the country in the highest percentage of tobacco users in the United States. That same survey reported that 11.2 percent of high school males use tobacco in some form.

The risks are eminent, throat cancer and mouth cancer being just two of the repercussions for its use.

But with West Virginia being a state that thrives on tradition, one may wonder if the trend will ever be broken in the Mountain State.

“As bad as it sounds, you watch the people before you do it and you want to be like them, so you follow suit,” Markley admitted. “It’s just the thing to do around here, I guess you could say.”

Email Matt Welch at mwelch@timeswv.com or follow him on Twitter @MattWelch_TWV.

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