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Coverage of Tony Gwynn’s Death Likely to Affect Perceptions of Smokeless Tobacco Risk – But in what Direction?

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Hall of Fame baseball player Tony Gwynn died much too young Monday at the age of 54, succumbing to salivary gland cancer. Gwynn had used smokeless tobacco during his 20-year career with the Padres, and his passing has people talking about the dangers of smokeless tobacco and its tie to our nation’s pastime. How the conversation is framed, however, will determine if this will be an opportunity seized or missed for prevention/cessation efforts.

Players know the risks, but they choose to use smokeless tobacco anyway. At least that’s the line they’re giving reporters. We face this challenge with our work with youth as well. It is essential for the communicator to realize that there’s a difference between knowing (i.e., being able to rattle off textbook definitions) and internalizing that knowledge in a personally meaningful way. Communication of risks plays a huge role in helping people make the connections necessary to create and build relevance.

The smokeless tobacco conversation generated by Gwynn’s passing provides a great case study. There are three conversational shifts that I think would generate more attitudinal and behavioral change through a focus on behavior change as an exchange (i.e., what am I getting and what will it cost me).

  1. A focused message regarding costs of use. News coverage has consistently pointed out that Gwynn blamed smokeless tobacco for his cancer. But, the link is discussed only in terms of what Gwynn believed – not what his doctors thought and not what the scientific evidence supports. With all the benefits players cite for using, it’s no wonder the cost of quitting is perceived as higher than using – the cost message is muddy and hampered by a lack of research in this area (compared to smoking). In order for smokeless tobacco prevention and cessation messages to really have an impact, relevant costs of use and benefits of abstaining from use must be effectively communicated. What costs can the research currently support and how can those be framed to speak to the motivations of baseball players? “Might” and “may” language just isn’t strong enough.
  2. Accurate portrayal of norms. A second unfortunate direction the conversation has taken is one of normalizing smokeless tobacco use. Phrases like “a habit all too common in baseball” and “so prevalent in clubhouses that it takes willpower to stay away” have dominated the smokeless tobacco discussion this week. These descriptions seem intended to set up an argument that smokeless tobacco use in Major League Baseball is problematic and warrants attention, but the picture painted for young ballplayers is “everybody’s doing it.” With social benefits frequently cited as behavioral drivers, it is essential to address the related perceived costs of not dipping in this environment.
  3. Respecting choice. A potential ban of smokeless tobacco use during games is a hot topic this week as well. The counter argument to a ban is that players are adults who should be able to make their own decisions – an argument that prevented a ban from being implemented in 2011 when MLB put some restrictions in place. But, a ban from baseball can be framed so that it’s not about restricting choices. It’s about changing culture. The idea that smokeless tobacco is simply part of baseball culture has gotten some attention, but a cultural shift hasn’t been tied to the discussion of a potential ban. A ban would prevent modeling behavior among youth who see their favorite players using dip, and it would remove the possibility of dip becoming part of young players’ routines. Eliminate the cultural benefits to using, and the next generation of players might not choose to dip.

The question now is what effect the conversation this week will have on smokeless tobacco use in baseball. Will Gwynn’s legacy be the end of smokeless tobacco in the majors? With a little evidence-based communication strategy, his story just might take us in that direction.

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