The Dangers of Smokeless Tobacco By docandy15 on June 17, 2019

What Killed Tony Gwynn

Tony Gwynn, a hall-of-fame, all-star player in major league baseball, died yesterday, June 16, 2014, at the young age of 54. Tony had phenomenal career in baseball holding eight batting titles and career batting average of .338. Out of the 10,232 times that Tony stepped up to the plate, he had an incredible 3,141 career hits, and a mere 434 career strikeouts. Neither Tony Martinez nor Greg Maddux was ever able to strike out Tony Gwynn, an accomplishment of which few players can boast (Oz, 2014). He was an incredible player, whether on offense or defense; he held 7 Silver Slugger Awards and 5 Gold Gloves. It’s little wonder he played for the All-Star team 15 times (Corcoran, 2014).  MLB and baseball fans suffered a great loss yesterday.

Tony Gywnn paid the ultimate price to play the game of baseball and played it at a Hall of Fame level but his habit and poor choices of using Smokeless Tobacco for many years ended his life too soon. Sports writer, Tom Friend would agree with that statement.

Mr. Friend writes, “...he first began to chew at rookie ball in Walla Walla, Washington. He was so paranoid that his swing would fall to pieces overnight that he would dip smokeless tobacco to take the edge off."

He told me he had the same morning habit for years -- brush your teeth, then fire in a dip -- and that he would go through a can and a half of Skoal a day."

“‘I was addicted,’ he once told me. He would sneak out of his house late at night -- ‘like a criminal,’ he said -- to buy his tobacco at a convenience store. ...His wife… wanted him to quit, begged him to quit, threatened to leave him if he didn’t quit. [Tony] tried bubble gum, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and synthetic chew, but baseball wasn’t baseball without the real stuff.

“‘I’m a tobacco junkie,’ he told me.

“Until it gave him cancer of the salivary gland in 2010

Oral Cancer

It’s unfortunate that it took oral cancer to be a wake-up call for Tony Gwynn to change his habits. Oral Cancer and throat cancer are cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx, which includes the tongue, throat, hard and soft palate, salivary glands, floor of the mouth, cheeks, and lips.

According to the American Dental Association, more than 42,000 adults will be diagnosed with oral or throat cancer this year. The 5-year survival rate is barely above 64%. The death rate for oral or throat cancer is higher than that of other cancers. An estimated 8,000 people die annual from oral or pharyngeal cancer (ADA, n.d.).

Cancer rates are significantly higher for males than females, specifically, Hispanic or black males. Oral cancer rates increase with age, with rates increasing rapidly after age 50 and peaking between 60 and 70 years old (NIH, 2014). While oral cancer demographics have consistently shown that it usually isn’t diagnosed until around 40 years old, recent research shows an increase in the incidence of oral cancer in a much younger age group. This has been linked to the increased prevalence of the human papilloma virus (HPV), as well as smokeless tobacco being touted as a “safe” alternative to smoking. Oral cancer is becoming increasingly more common in women due to changes in lifestyle factors over the past 2 decades (Oral Cancer Foundation, n.d.).

Am I at risk?

The use of smokeless tobacco is what caused Tony Gwynn’s cancer and ultimately the cause of his death. That is one of many risk factors that can contribute to the occurrence of oral cancer. If any of the following apply to you, then you may be at risk:

  • If you are male
  • If you are over 44 years old
  • If you consume alcohol
  • If you smoke or use smokeless tobacco
  • If you are frequently exposed to UV light from the sun or tanning beds
  • If your diet is not nutritionally balanced, with plenty of plant-based foods

How will I know if I have oral cancer?

Just as it is important to be regularly screened for other types of cancer through regularly scheduled pap smears, mammograms, prostate exams, colonoscopies, etc., it is important to be screened regularly for oral cancer. During your semi-annual dental exam, Dr. Lunn will examine the tissues of your mouth and throat to screen for any possible cancerous lesions.

The sooner oral and pharyngeal cancer are caught, the greater the chance of a successful outcome with proper treatment. This is why it’s important to not only rely on Dr. Andrew Lunn to look in your mouth and note any changes. It is important to examine your own mouth weekly between dental visits, using a mirror and good lighting to see your tongue (sides, top side, and underside), cheeks, lips, and throat (say “ahhh”) to note any changes.

What do I look for?

Dr. Andrew Lunn should examine any of the following signs or symptoms that persist for more than two weeks:

  • Red or white patches
  • A lump or thickening of oral tissues, swelling, rough spots, crusted areas or small eroded areas
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving your jaw or tongue
  • Changes in the fit of your denture or partial
  • Changes in the way your teeth are coming together when you bite
  • A persistent sore throat or the feeling that something is stuck in your throat
  • Any changes in your voice
  • A sore or irritation, even minor ones, that don’t go away

If you are concerned or have a loved one that you may be at risk for oral cancer or has used Smokeless Tobacco for years, contact Chattanooga Family Dentistry today to schedule an exam and oral cancer screening and to discuss your risk factors and how you can reduce your risk of oral or pharyngeal cancer.

American Dental Association. (2014). Oral Health Topics: Cancer Oral. Retrieved from
Corcoran, Cliff. (June 16, 2014). 10 Best Seasons of Tony Gwynn’s Hall-of-Fame Career. Retrieved from
Friend, Tom. (June 16, 2014). Tony Gwynn Used Fear As Motivation. Retrieved from
Oral Cancer Foundation. (2014). Oral Cancer Facts. Retrieved from
Oz, Mike. (June 16, 2014). 19 Incredible Stats About Tony Gwynn’s Hall-of-Fame Career. Retrieved from

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  • American Dental Association
  • American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry
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  • Tennessee Dental Association
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