The family of baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who died of salivary gland cancer in 2014, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit Monday against the tobacco industry, charging that Gwynn had been manipulated into the addiction to smokeless tobacco that ultimately killed him.
The suit was filed in Superior Court in San Diego against Altria Group Inc., the tobacco giant formerly known as Philip Morris, and several other defendants who are accused of inducing Gwynn to begin using smokeless tobacco, or dip, at San Diego State University, which he attended from 1977 to 1981 and where he later coached after a 20-year career with the San Diego Padres.
For 31 years — 1977 to 2008 — Gwynn used one and a half to two cans of smokeless tobacco (usually Skoal) per day. It was the equivalent, the suit says, of four to five packs of cigarettes every day for 31 years. Gwynn would dip Skoal immediately upon waking up, the suit said, and sometimes fall asleep with the product in his right lip and cheek area.
There are no damages specified in the complaint, which asks for a jury trial on grounds of negligence, fraud and product liability. Essentially, the complaint says that Gwynn, while in college, was the victim of a scheme to get him, a rising star athlete, addicted to smokeless tobacco, while knowing the dangers it posed to him. The suit said the industry was undergoing a determined effort at the time to market its products to African-Americans, and that Gwynn was a “marketing dream come true” for the defendants.
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“Now that the family understands how he was targeted, they understand that the industry knew they had this highly carcinogenic product and they were marketing it to people like Tony,” said David S. Casey, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. “They want to hold them accountable and let a jury make a decision as to what is proper in this case.”
Gwynn’s son, Tony Gwynn Jr., a former major league outfielder, is named as a plaintiff, along with his mother, Alicia Gwynn, and his sister, Anisha Gwynn-Jones. Gwynn Jr. said his father, who was 54 when he died, did not smoke or drink and did not know how addictive or harmful smokeless tobacco would be when he first started dipping.
“The tobacco companies were using his addiction to turn him into their ultimate walking billboard,” Gwynn Jr. said. “He never knew it, but they were using him to promote their dip to the next generation of kids and fans who idolized him.”
Altria’s media relations department had no immediate comment when contacted about the lawsuit.
The use of smokeless tobacco is deeply embedded in the fabric of the game, but there is growing awareness of its danger and a public health campaign in some cities to stop its use.
San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston passed bills last season that ban the use of smokeless tobacco at ballparks – including by players – and New York City passed similar legislation this year.
Richard A. Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University who specializes in tobacco liability litigation but is not involved in the case, said Gwynn’s family quite likely had a “very strong” case because the tobacco companies knew of the health risks at the time Gwynn began using the product. He added that Gwynn’s status as not just a star, but also a person extremely well-regarded by teammates, opponents, fans and the news media, could make him sympathetic to a jury.
“Typically what tobacco companies do is blame the victim,” said Daynard, who leads the tobacco products liability project at Northeastern’s law school. “This is someone of very strong character, beloved — only good things about him. They’re not going to be able to play that game.”
Benjamin Chaffee, an assistant professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Dentistry, was a co-author of a study last year that found that 15 percent of male high school students in the United States used smokeless tobacco, and that high school athletes used at an even higher rate. He said athletes who dipped implicitly endorsed the products.
“If you look at the marketing that smokeless tobacco companies have been doing for decades, there was absolutely tying-in with baseball products – caps, other gear, equipment or promotional items,” Chaffee said. “It was a very intentional action to intertwine smokeless tobacco as part of the baseball culture – really, an intentional infiltration of the values of the sport with a product that was known to be deadly and continues to be deadly today.”
Gwynn’s lawsuit culls details from millions of documents made public in the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement in 1998. It describes the “graduation pleasure process” designed to lure users to addiction, often with free samples, which Gwynn received regularly at San Diego State.
The suit said the defendants intentionally misled the public about the health risks of smokeless tobacco, a campaign Chaffee said was still effective today, even with warning labels.
“Young people look at smokeless tobacco relative to cigarettes and they may say, ‘Well, this isn’t as bad as smoking' – and sometimes that comes out as: not-as-bad-as-smoking must be harm-free, and that’s absolutely not true,” Chaffee said. “Less harmful is not harmless. There’s a perception that the risks are somewhat distant in the future and that young people feel they'll be able to quit before those health risks come to take their toll. And before you know it, people begin using a product that is very addictive and very difficult to quit.”
The suit provides details of an athletic titan who was hopelessly addicted to dip, despite efforts to quit. He was frequently photographed with a pinch of tobacco in his cheek, including on his 1985 and 1989 Topps baseball cards, which are used in the official complaint to illustrate the plaintiffs’ argument.
In 1991, Gwynn developed swelling on the right side of his neck for a tumor that was found to be benign. The next year, he developed a lesion on his lower right lip. Fifteen years later, when his right neck swelled again, Gwynn needed surgery to remove an abscess. He soon reduced his dipping to one can per week, but needed prescription drugs to manage the resulting anxiety, cravings, depression and insomnia.
Gwynn was found in 2010 to have cancer in his right parotid salivary gland. The duct from that gland, the suit says, led directly to the spot where he placed his dip for so many years. He died in Poway, California, on June 16, 2014 – too soon to meet his grandson and namesake, Anthony Keith Gwynn III, who was born last summer.
“People stop me in the grocery store all the time, and the first thing they ask me is if it’s OK if they tell me a story about my father,” Gwynn Jr. said. “I always say yes, because those type of things help you grieve. They really do. They help you get through the day.”
Gwynn said his father was proud to be a role model and would be relieved to know that his death could be a catalyst for helping to eradicate dipping.
“He wouldn’t want to see another person have to get sick and die because of what the tobacco companies did,” Gwynn Jr. said. “And in order to make that happen, these companies have to be held accountable.”