The King County Board of Health is set to vote Thursday on a proposal to ban smokeless tobacco at pro-sports venues countywide — Safeco Field, CenturyLink Field and KeyArena — in an answer to those who say the habit among players sets a poor example for fans and young athletes.
A proposed King County ordinance could soon prohibit Mariners players and competitors from using smokeless tobacco at Safeco Field, marking a milestone in a yearslong push by advocates of a nationwide youth-health campaign to get chewing tobacco out of Major League Baseball.
The King County Board of Health is set to vote Thursday on a proposal to ban smokeless tobacco at professional sports venues countywide — Safeco, CenturyLink Field and KeyArena — in an answer to those who say the habit among players sets a poor example for fans and young athletes.
The stadiums already prohibit ticket holders from using such products, as well as marijuana, cigarettes and vaping devices, unless they are in designated areas outside the buildings. Security and event staff typically monitor for violators.
More than a handful of Mariners players chew tobacco, sometimes during games.
A spokeswoman for the team, however, said they are supportive of a ban.
“We think it’s a good plan,” spokeswoman Rebecca Hale said. “This proposal is something that the fans will be happy to know is on the books.”
If the board gives a green light Thursday afternoon, half of all MLB stadiums — totaling 15 — would forbid smokeless tobacco for athletes during games.
It could be “a tipping point toward completely eliminating smokeless tobacco use” across MLB, a county document says.
San Francisco set off the trend with a ban at AT&T Park in 2015. The city’s mayor, Mark Farrell, said they are encouraged to watch the policy spread.
The momentum grew from a troubling statistic among health advocates that shows while cigarette smoking has declined over years locally and nationally, the number of people who use smokeless tobacco remains relatively stagnant.
The rate has not dropped significantly in King County since 2014, health data shows.
The county guesses about 31,000 people use smokeless tobacco products — about 10 percent of which are preteens or teens.
High-schoolers who play sports are more likely to use smokeless tobacco than their peers, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
”They (children) see them (players) on TV; they see them in dugouts; they see them signing autographs, and it really affects these kids,” said Annie Tegen, an advocacy director for Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which is pushing the King County measure.
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Pending an approving vote, the rule would take effect in mid-May and cover the field and clubhouse areas.
First-time offenses among players would equal a warning, and repeat violators would mean hefty fines.
“It’s a simple and powerful message to kids that baseball and tobacco don’t mix,” Tegen said.
Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, based in Washington, D.C., has pushed its message in cities all over the U.S. for more than a decade, drawing on testimonies from kids who feel slighted by watching their idols chew and emphasizing the health dangers of long-term use.
“My favorite player is (Mariners outfielder) Ben Gamel,” one 9-year-old said to the King County Board of Health this year. “I see Ben Gamel spitting tobacco on the ground all the time …”
“I don’t want my heroes chewing tobacco,” a 10-year-old said. “I want them to live a long time.”
MLB took a major step of its own to kick the habit recently by including a provision in its latest collective-bargaining agreement that prohibits all new players from dipping on the field or in clubhouses without risk of penalty.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has voiced support for bans.
All little leagues, public-school leagues, college teams and MLB-affiliated minor leagues across the country already forbid tobacco.
Most users place smokeless tobacco in their mouth, to suck on and then spit out the juices. It has about the same amount of nicotine as cigarettes and more than two dozen chemicals that can cause cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Health concerns over the addiction have accelerated in the baseball community in recent years after Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn died in 2014 at age 54 from salivary gland cancer complications, following years of dipping.
Other players who chewed and battled oral cancer include Babe Ruth and Brett Butler.
“Smokeless tobacco has been a part of the baseball culture in the past; many professional baseball players still use it,” Tegen said. “It’ll peter out, but we’re just trying to get before it.”