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An American myth finally bites the dust

WASHINGTON - Clouds of acrid cigar smoke will doubtless billow from Babe Ruth's grave, but the war on tobacco here in all its guises brooks no exception, even for the national pastime. Mighty baseball sluggers, their cheeks bulging with chewing tobacco, may still be an American image - but not for much longer, writes Rupert Cornwell.

As of last week, Major League Baseball, the sport's governing body, has banned the use of tobacco products, be they snuff, chewing tobacco or cigarettes, at games and practice sessions, even on the team bus. For now, the edict applies only to the minor leagues. But it will almost certainly be extended to the majors as well.

Thus perishes an era immortalised by Babe Ruth, America's most enduring sporting icon, who would pass the time in the dugout smoking stogies, and belligerently chomp on unlit cigars at the plate. But Ruth died from throat cancer at 53. And if the studies which led to the minor league ban are anything to go by, many of his would-be imitators today might follow him.

Smokeless tobacco, it is claimed, caused three-quarters of the 30,000 new cases of oral cancer diagnosed in the US last year. Of professional baseball players, 40 per cent use tobacco. Half of these are said to have precancerous lesions of the mouth.

Some diehards are resisting the ban, pointing out that chewing tobacco does not carry the risk of passive smoking which is one of the most potent arguments of the anti-cigarette campaigners. The new rule was 'just ridiculous', one minor leaguer said this week. 'You're telling 25- and 26-year- old guys what they can and can't do. We're grown men.'

But already smoking is heavily regulated in 22 of the country's 28 major league baseball stadiums, while the preferred chew of contemporary megastars is as likely to be bubble-gum as tobacco. Back in his 1920s and 1930s heyday, Ruth would lend his name to tobacco advertisements. Now baseball players plug milk.

Tobacco, insists Jimmy Solomon, the executive in charge of minor league baseball, 'is unsanitary, nasty and unhealthy and we're not going to promote it'. But America's ballparks will never be quite the same again.