On and Off the Field: The Effects of Tobacco on Professional Athletes & Fans

Tobacco use by professional athletes can harm personal performance, and hurt their team. With the influence they hold over today’s youth, quitting now can do more than save their own lives – it could save the life of a child.


When most people think of professional athletes, tobacco use is probably not high on the list of things that come to mind. After all, those who work in professional, or even minor league sports, are supposed to be in tip-top physical condition. Tobacco use is linked with everything from heart disease to numerous forms of cancer, making it incompatible with athletic performance. Unfortunately, many athletes struggle to quit using tobacco, both in cigarette and smokeless varieties.

Tradition is Hard to Break

For many athletes, especially those in certain sports, use of tobacco products is a matter of tradition. For instance, in baseball, chew tobacco has long been held as a traditional staple for players. Many major league players report starting the habit when they were in their younger years, and being unable to quit once they reached the professional leagues. According to an interview conducted by the Boston Globe, out of 56 Red Sox players, 21 admitted to using smokeless tobacco. Some reported only using it during games as a way to relax.

How did this “tradition” start? Tobacco lobbyists originally enlisted professional athletes to help them promote their products. Seeing a professional athlete chewing tobacco or smoking a cigarette gives the subtle impression that tobacco products can be connected with health, vitality, and youth. Before stricter advertising regulations were put into place, it also helped cigarette and smokeless tobacco companies target younger consumers to encourage them to start the habit.

In surveys performed with college athletes, players involved with baseball, hockey, and lacrosse were most likely to use tobacco products. Basketball players were the least likely. Even in less physically athletic sports, like NASCAR, tobacco has its hold. Winston was a major sponsor for the sport for over 30 years.

According to surveys by Medco Sports Medicine, 31% of male athletes at the college level admitted to using smokeless tobacco in their freshmen years. This behavior was linked to higher instances of cigarette smoking and alcohol use among the same athletes, putting players at risk for a multitude of health problems, among other dangers associated with such high risk behaviors.

While smokeless tobacco is most commonly associated with sports figures, there are still some players and staff members who smoke. Despite public scrutiny, and sometimes backlash from managers and other higher-ups, players have been caught on camera smoking cigars and cigarettes.

Smokeless Tobacco’s Negative Effects

Some falsely assume that smokeless tobacco is the safer choice, but this is inaccurate. Whether smoked or chewed, tobacco products lead to nicotine addiction. Further, even smokeless tobacco can lead to numerous types of cancers and other health related issues. Healthychildren.org reports that chewing tobacco can lead to cancer of the mouth and throat. It may also be linked to heart problems.

What can be Done?

sports2There is help available for those who want to reduce the rates of tobacco use among athletes. Actions by the Centers for Disease Control and others have already begun to offset the early years of tobacco advertisements. Sports figures are now enlisted to promote abstinence from smoking to encourage young players to avoid the habit to begin with.

Those who are already addicted to smoking or chew tobacco can find aids to help them quit. There are numerous stop-smoking/chewing aids available for those who are ready to make a plan and give up tobacco for good.