Orioles understand but dislike the tobacco ban they're about to face

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
When the Orioles play at Fenway Park, they'll be subject to Boston's ban on smokeless tobacco use

When the Orioles travel to Boston for the Red Sox' home opener Monday, they'll be the first visiting team subject to that city's new law banning smokeless tobacco from baseball stadiums.

Many of the players accept the spirit of the ban — which is aimed to make the habit less visible for young fans — even if they think legislating against it on a civic or sport level is a bit extreme.

"We all want to be respectful of rules, and we understand what they're trying to accomplish," first baseman Chris Davis said. "As a guy who obviously uses smokeless tobacco, it's always a battle to try to quit when you've been doing it for so long.

On the ban, Davis said: "I think it's the right thing to do. We'll see how it goes."

The Orioles will face uncertainty this series, but the ban will soon be more routine.

San Francisco passed a law last year that takes effect this season, and games in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles will present similar restrictions. The entire state of California will be covered under a law banning smokeless tobacco use next season.

Kathleen Hoke, director of the Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation at the University of Maryland's law school, said having the bans at a city level was a result of failed efforts by MLB to get the players to accept a ban in their collective bargaining agreement.

"They didn't really want to deal with it in that way, so they threw their hands up and said on a jurisdiction by jurisdiction basis," Hoke said. "If they want to enforce it, so be it."

All of the players accept that they have a responsibility to set a good example, and Hoke cited studies that show tobacco use is more prevalent among young ballplayers.

"That is the fundamental basis for it," Hoke said. "What we do know is young male baseball players are far more likely to use smokeless tobacco than their same-aged peers in other sports like lacrosse or hockey. We know the reason is there's a culture in baseball of using smokeless tobacco. Affecting culture change through the NCAA and the minor leagues and now majors should have an impact."

Reliever Darren O'Day, the Orioles' union representative, said players have been briefed on the laws during spring training. He believes it's "reasonable" to reduce the visibility of the tobacco use so as to not influence children, but said the ban is "a bit of a government overreach."

"There's a triple-bacon cheeseburger," O'Day said. "Do you really need that? No, you don't, but the government's not going to outlaw it.

"I get it," O'Day said. "We get it. But as I said before, there's some personal liberties that I just don't think should be infringed upon. I don't dip. I don't smoke. I smoke a cigar once in a while. My dad lives in a community in Florida where you can't smoke a cigar on your own back porch. To me, that just blows my mind."

Players aren't sure how the new law will be enforced. The Red Sox did not respond to a request for comment on the subject. In minor league baseball, where smokeless tobacco has been banned for several years, officials posing as photographers with long-lens cameras would monitor it.

All the players know is that the ban exists, and they'll be fined for it. Not only will the violation of the law result in a citation from the city, but Major League Baseball will fine them on top of that.

That has some players irked, even a non-user like closer Zach Britton.

"With the way MLB is trying to implement it, it's almost like a fine on top of a fine," Britton said. "I think most players are in agreement that MLB should kind of stay out of it. It's a local law. It's not a law enforcement agency. It's professional baseball. We're a sport. So I don't think the fine should go through them.

"We're going to respect the law. I think when MLB steps in and tries to fine players additionally on top, that's where the issue is."

With two levels of discipline at stake, players are seeking alternatives. Orioles players mentioned using coffee grind pouches, corn husk string, and mint leaves, plus the traditional sunflower seeds and gum.

That begs the question of how — unless players are asked to remove what's in their mouth — will officials monitor what they're using.

"A lot of times, people just assume when they see something in our cheek that it is a tobacco product," Davis said. "Oftentimes, it's not. There are ways around it."

There's movement afoot in several other cities to enact bans of their own, but none seems to be looming in Baltimore. In addition to a state or city law that would regulate it, the Maryland Stadium Authority could set a standard, as they have with a ban on e-cigarettes and the creation of designated smoking areas at Baltimore's stadiums.

City health commissioner Dr. Leana Wen said the indisputable link between tobacco use and various types of cancer means her office would support such a ban on the city level. A spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said there's no ban in the works in Baltimore's legislative arm.

Hoke said the recent spate of bans is a step toward the long-standing goal of ridding the game of smokeless tobacco.

"I think it's going to take a while for it to be comprehensive nationwide," Hoke said, "But I think from MLB's perspective, at some point they'll hit a tipping point where they're operating in enough cities that have it as a rule that they'll be more likely to impose it on themselves. That's the ultimate goal, that MLB impose it on its coaches and players."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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