Saturday, August 1, 2009

Former Los Angeles Angels Pitching Prospect Rick Bender A Living Testament To The Dangers Of Smokeless Tobacco

The photo above is NOT photo-shopped. But Rick Bender wishes it was. He's the person in the picture, and he lost most of his jaw because of smokeless tobacco.

While visiting the Deseret News website, I caught a comment to this story out of the corner of my eye. It led back to a report about former minor league baseball player Rick Bender (he was in the Los Angeles Angels farm system), originally published in the Deseret News back in April 2006, but still attracting public comments to this day - 372 as of this post.

Summary: Rick Bender began "dipping", or using smokeless tobacco, when he was 12 years old. He attributes it to pressure from peers, convincing tobacco advertisements and the association with his favorite sport, baseball. Suddenly, in 1988 when he turned 25, he had developed a large sore on the side of his tongue that persisted for months. He stopped dipping, but the sore returned a few months later. He was sent to a specialist for a biopsy.

According to the TobaccoFacts website, it was a dime-sized bump on his tongue that was supposed to take two-and-a-half hours to remove. Twelve hours later, his life was irrevocably changed. Surgeons successfully removed the cancerous cells from Bender's mouth and throat, but also had to take a chunk of his tongue and the lymph nodes on the right side of his neck in the process. Unfortunately, removing the cancer also caused nerve damage that limited the use of his right arm, a tough blow to the former minor league baseball player, since he was a right-handed pitcher.

There were subsequent complications. Radiation therapy later caused an infection in the right side of Bender's jaw. As a result, it deteriorated and doctors had to remove it. Here's a short video covering a part of his appearance at Utah Valley University back in April 2006:

It seems like the law of unintended consequences is exacerbating this problem. Bender has found that, as a result of the increasing prevalence of anti-smoking ordinances around the country, a number of smokers compensate by switching to smokeless tobacco. Unfortunately, many anti-smoking ordinances are passed in a climate of emotional hysteria which oftentimes precludes thoughtful, intelligent analysis and discourse. The emotional climate is frequently much more anti-smoker rather than anti-smoking. Thus prospective impacts like the possibility of smokers taking up dipping tends not to be considered. Three years after enacting an anti-smoking ordinance, Philadelphia is contemplating a ban on all smokeless tobacco.

Comments posted to the Deseret News story indicate that a considerable number of younger people were not only unaware of the risks of dipping, but were moved by this story to stop the habit. Further information about Bender can be found on One commenter suggests visiting the website, which offers comprehensive information.

The message needs to get out to kids. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 8 percent of high school students are current smokeless tobacco users. Smokeless tobacco is more common among males (13.6 percent) than female high school students (2.2 percent). An estimated 3 percent of middle school students are current smokeless tobacco users. Smokeless tobacco is more common among male (4 percent) than female (2 percent) middle school students.

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