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In Kentucky, a southern, tobacco-growing state in the United States, teacher Mike Sawyer runs two baseball teams with a difference: their name itself is the blunt, hard-hitting slogan which motivates them:smoking kills (figure). The teams, for children of 11 years and under, and 12 and under, respectively, are becoming known increasingly far afield, and their name is clearly generating healthy controversy and challenging many Americans’ views on tobacco. Better than any of the news items and messages of support for the teams’ work, the account of one young player sums up what the teams are all about.
“Last summer I got to play baseball for an unusual team. The name of this team was smoking kills. At first I didn’t know if I would be able to play for that team and for the Jessamine League team too but I really wanted to try so my parents let me. It was a really neat experience because there were guys on the team that I had never played ball with before because it wasn’t just made up of Jessamine County boys: there were guys from Winchester, Lexington, Paris and Berea. It was coached by men who have coached for a long time and one of them coaches high school ball so I figured I could really learn a lot about ball. The team turned out to be more than just playing ball; it became a social statement.
“One day we look at the Lexington newspaper and on the front page there is a story about our team including a picture. You can’t really see me in the picture but my mom recognized my ear and knew I was really in the picture. I guess Mom’s notice things like that. The story brought up a lot of stuff I really hadn’t thought about before. There were people that were saying it was a dumb name for a ball team and that grown ups who got it together were trying to use the kids to jeopardize a leading cash crop for the state. People were saying that kids shouldn’t be used to make a statement about a grown up fight. I just wanted to play baseball; I wasn’t trying to hurt farmers or anything.
“It got me to thinking about it. My teachers tell me that smoking is a drug and that I shouldn’t do it. My parents say it is something you can get addicted to and then it is real hard to quit. The news is filled with people who had died from cancer because of smoking. I know that I never want to start smoking. My Granny died two years ago with lung cancer. My family moved in with her to help take care of her when she was bad sick. I helped with her because I really loved my Granny. I still miss her and I think that if smoking had not been so easy for her to have started when she was younger I may still have her here. I really miss her.
“My mom smokes. She started smoking when she just 14 years old because nobody ever told her it wasn’t a good thing to do. They found a spot on her lung about a year ago and even though they found out it wasn’t anything serious, it really scared us. She is trying real hard to quit and her doctor is helping her. I would really miss my mom if she was sick and died—I want her to quit smoking. I think it is hard for kids to grow up without their mom.
“So, I was happy to make a statement for people to not smoke. Plus I got to play baseball. My mom said that all the time she was watching the games she couldn’t smoke while seeing SMOKING KILLS on the backs of all those kids. Maybe other people didn’t smoke while they saw me wearing that jersey. That makes me feel good knowing that maybe I helped someone.
“Of course the highlight of the season is that I hit a home run and the team won. Everyone needs an added bonus. . . . And a trophy is a cool thing.”
Mike Sawyer’s personal account of his experiences as a minister preaching a “tobacco kills” sermon in Kentucky was published in Tobacco Control 1998; 7: 438–40.—DSARTICLE