Major League Baseball is airing a public service announcement with retired pitcher Curt Schilling claiming “I have oral cancer” and linking that condition to his long-term use of chewing tobacco (here). The 60-second spot, produced by MLB and the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society, will be shown in baseball stadiums and on the MLB Network.
The PSA, however well-intentioned, is unsubstantiated and grossly misleading. Schilling and MLB squander a chance to impress adults and youths about the hazards of smoking, alcohol and human papillomaviruses (HPVs, sexually-transmitted viruses causing throat cancer and cervical cancer in women) and instead perpetuate smokeless tobacco myths.
Schilling has been blaming smokeless for his cancer for two years, but neither he nor his doctors have presented any evidence to support the claim and there is, in fact, good reason to question its accuracy.
Mouth cancer is extremely rare. The most common risk factor is smoking, which can increase chances ten-fold. Smokers who drink alcohol are at even higher risk, and alcohol abuse alone raises the odds about four-fold. Another significant cause of tongue and throat cancer is HPVs (here).
While Schilling attributes his cancer to chewing tobacco, one’s odds of developing mouth cancer from this habit are about the same as those for a person who neither smokes, drinks nor has an HPV infection – roughly one or two in 100,000.
One should ask: Did Schilling actually have mouth cancer? It’s highly unlikely. He says his cancer was discovered after he found a lump in his neck. This indicates that it was almost certainly located in his throat and that it had already spread to a lymph node.
Throat cancer is not associated with smokeless tobacco use. It is, however, strongly linked to smoking, heavy alcohol use and infection with HPV.
The MLB is irresponsible in airing a PSA based on the mere (and likely misguided) opinion of a layman. Public health campaigns should be founded on verified medical and scientific information.