Tony Gwynn’s Family Sues Altria for His Death

     SAN DIEGO (CN) — Baseball Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn’s family sued the Altria Group on Monday, claiming its addictive smokeless tobacco killed San Diego’s favorite ballplayer with salivary gland cancer at 54.
     Alicia Gwynn and her children, Tony Jr. and Anisha Gwynn-Jones, sued Altria Group fka formerly Phillip Morris, its U.S. Smokeless Tobacco subsidiary, two other business and three people, in Superior Court.
     The U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company calls itself “the leading producer and marketer of moist smokeless tobacco,” and sells its chew as market-leading Skoal and Copenhagen, and Red Seal and Husky.
     The Gwynns say the defendants “wanted Tony and others like him to become tobacco addicts,” and their marketing strategy “hinged on using talented ballplayers like Tony to serve as unwitting role models for young kids and free national billboards.”
     Gwynn began using smokeless tobacco — or “dipping” — at age 17, as a freshman ballplayer at San Diego State University, and continued to do so throughout his college career, his wife says.
     The tobacco companies “continued to deluge Tony during his college years with countless free samples of ‘dip’ tobacco products they purposely adulterated to make more addictive. All the while, they did not mention either the highly addictive nature of their products or their toxicity,” according to the complaint.
     The Gwynn’s attorney David Casey Jr. said: “Sadly, Tony Gwynn was the tobacco companies’ perfect target, and in 2014 he and his family paid for it when he died of cancer caused by his addiction to and prolonged use of the tobacco companies’ products at the young age of 54. Now the family is seeking justice.”
     Gwynn’s son, Tony Gwynn Jr. added: “Our dad was an elite athlete who didn’t drink or smoke because he cared about his health and performance. If he had known how addictive and harmful to his health dip was, he would not have started using it in college, become addicted, and died so young.”
     Gwynn, a lifetime .338 hitter with eight batting titles and 15 All-Star appearances, played his entire career in San Diego and, along with NFL star Junior Seau, was the city’s most beloved athlete, especially because he repeatedly refused to take more money from better teams, so he could stay in San Diego. His career .338 batting average is the 17th best of all time, and the best of any player who began his career after World War II.
     Gwynn used one and a half to two cans of chewing tobacco a day for 31 years, his wife says.
     “Tony Gwynn was the defendants’ marketing dream come true. He was not only one of the finest baseball talents ever, he was also a tremendously likeable person. Defendants could not have asked for better publicity. They knew youngsters looking up to Tony would hope to one day hit like Tony, and be like Tony, so they would also want to ‘dip’ like Tony,” his family says in the complaint.
     As an athlete, college student, minor and African American, Gwynn was in the crosshairs of four targeted marketing campaigns by the tobacco companies, according to the complaint.
     He became so addicted to snuff that he dipped Skoal immediately upon waking up and sometimes fall asleep with it in his right lip and cheek.
     “Tony was a self-described ‘workaholic.’ And while he was working, whether during practice or games, he was dipping,” his wife says in the complaint.
     Gwynn was frequently photographed and broadcast with a pinch of tobacco in his right cheek and the distinctive round can of dip in his back pocket.
     His daughter, Anisha Gwynn-Jones said: “He wouldn’t want to see another player, or any other person, have to get sick and die because of what these tobacco companies did. And in order to make that happen, these companies have to be held accountable.”
     The tobacco companies got the benefit of this “priceless advertising” without paying him, and did not post health warnings on snuff cans until 1987, well after he was addicted, his family says in the complaint.
     According to the National Cancer Institute, at least 28 chemicals in smokeless tobacco have been found to cause cancer, including oral cancer, esophageal cancer and pancreatic cancer. Smokeless tobacco may also lead to heart disease, gum disease and oral lesions.
     In 1991, the right side of Gwynn’s neck swelled, requiring surgery to remove a benign tumor. However, “His addiction was so overpowering, that as soon as he got in the car after surgery, he reached for his can of Skoal,” his family says.
     He underwent another surgery in 2007 to remove a deep abscess that had caused the right side of his neck to swell again. A third surgery in 2010 led to the discovery of malignant metastatic carcinoma.
     “Tony Gwynn, aside from his prodigious hitting, was perhaps best known for his infectious smile and laughter. But he suffered such facial nerve damage to the right side of his face from the tumor, that it prevented him from smiling or even closing his right eyelid,” his family says in the lawsuit.
     He was diagnosed in 2010 with cancer of his right salivary gland. The duct from that gland leads to the place in his mouth where he placed the dip every day for more than 30 years, his family says.
     After radiation and chemotherapy, Gwynn died of respiratory failures caused by the disease on June 16, 2014. His widow says his death was caused by “addiction to and prolonged use of defendants’ tobacco products.”
     The Gwynns seek damages for negligence, fraud, negligent misrepresentation, product liability, failure to warn and fraudulent concealment.
     They are represented by David Casey with Casey Gerry Schenk Francavilla Blatt & Penfield, who did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
     Altria Group had no comment.
     Smokeless tobacco has been banned at ballparks by local governments in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and New York City, including use by ballplayers. California plans to implement a ban by the 2017 Major League Baseball season, and similar legislation is progressing in Washington, D.C. and Toronto.
     Defendants include corporations that own convenience stores in San Diego County where Gwynn bought much of his snuff, and three men whose relationships with the corporate defendants are not elucidated in the lawsuit.

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