The King County Board of Health unanimously approved an ordinance on April 19 that bans consumption of smokeless tobacco from the county’s three major sports arenas—Safeco Field, CenturyLink Field, and KeyArena—in an effort to reduce tobacco use among youth.
The ban covers not only spectators, but also professional players and staff in locker rooms, dugouts, and on the field. The county’s public health department will be enforcing the ban with financial penalties.
Pushed heavily by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a nationwide anti-tobacco initiative, supporters framed the bill as a way to both help eradicate smokeless tobacco from baseball culture and limit youth athletes exposure to products like chewing tobacco in professional sports.
“For too long we have witnessed the impact on our nation’s youth of the use of smokeless tobacco by Major League Baseball players,” said Annie Tegen, regional advocacy director for the Seattle branch of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, prior to the board’s vote. “They’re damaging their health with an addictive product that causes cancer and other serious diseases. And by serving as role models to youth throughout King County and the country, they’re endangering the well-being of millions of kids who look up to them and copy their every move.”
Tegen added that while smoking rates among youth have fallen over the last 15 years, smokeless tobacco consumption has remained steady—particularly amongst male high school athletes. (County public health officials who spoke prior to the vote presented similar statistics.)
Max Harrison, one of many children with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids who attended the vote, said during public comment that he wants to see chewing tobacco out of professional baseball, and argued that it is harmfully embedded in the sport’s culture. “Even though we aren’t old enough to buy chewing tobacco, we can buy this,” the 9-year-old said, holding up a bag of Big League Chew gum. “It is gum, but it is supposed to look like chewing tobacco.”
The ordinance also has the endorsement of the Seattle Mariners team management. “It’s something that we’re very supportive of,” said Rebecca Hale, a Mariners spokesperson, in a phone interview.
Policies limiting smokeless tobacco consumption adopted by 14 other cities around the country and Major League Baseball are also in line with the county’s ordinance. In the 1990s, chewing tobacco was banned from Minor League Baseball, and big league officials have regularly sought to include a league-wide smokeless tobacco ban in baseball collective bargaining agreements, but have been met with resistance from the players’ union. In 2016, both the Major League Baseball Players Association and Major League Baseball agreed to ban new players from using smokeless tobacco, while players with more than a day of service were exempt.
“It hasn’t been able to work it’s way up to the major league level yet,” said Hale.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has also voiced his support for limiting smokeless tobacco consumption.
Some in the smoke products industry report that smokeless tobacco sales are still strong. Aman Dhakal, 32, a cashier at Pioneer Smoke Shop near Safeco Field, said that chewing tobacco sales haven’t declined significantly in the three years that he has been working at the store.
Seattle Weekly spoke to a collection of Mariners fans headed to the April 19 day game against the Houston Astros, and their reaction to the ban seemed mixed.
Maria Chavez, 23, said that youth are already inundated with anti-smoking messaging, and that, ultimately, players have the right to consume tobacco if they choose. “Everyone has a choice, so let them do what they want.”
Conversely, Mike Salzberg, 54, who was smoking a cigar on his way to Safeco Field, said that players are role models and should set an example. “They’re examples. They get paid a lot of money, and they’re setting the example for 20,000 people today, and so I think they can do without [chewing tobacco].”