Major League Baseball
MLB players turning to nicotine pouches amid tobacco bans
Major League Baseball

MLB players turning to nicotine pouches amid tobacco bans

Updated Mar. 3, 2023 6:34 p.m. ET

SARASOTA, Fla. — In 1912, the American Tobacco Company advertised its popular "Bull Durham" brand of loose-leaf chewing tobacco by erecting enormous wooden bull statues beyond outfield fences in the majority of MLB stadiums. 

Any player who struck a homer off the bull would win a $50 check and 72 "sacks" of tobacco as a reward. 

By season’s end, the company paid out $10,550 in prize money and gave away 254,700 sacks to players, but also saw sales skyrocket in what is considered one of the more successful and influential baseball advertising campaigns of the early 20th century.

That same Bull Durham brand also inspired the Durham Bulls moniker (the team was fittingly known as the "Tobacconists" until 1912), which in turn inspired the famous 1988 movie of the same name.


But while Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate is still called the Durham Bulls today and the team still has a huge bull statue towering beyond its left-field wall, tobacco’s influence over the sport has changed quite a bit over the years to become much more … visceral. 

From the major-leaguers with gaudy lumps of chaw bulging beneath their lower lips to the geysers of mud-brown dip spit erupting over dugout railings to the pucks of long-cut wintergreen rattling around in back pockets to the slapping pitapat of tins being packed, its presence is everywhere. And, of course, there’s the infamous scene in "The Sandlot" where the kids stuff their mouths full of Red Man (now known as America’s Best after an overdue name change) before vomiting all over the tilt-a-wheel.

Chewing tobacco has always been baseball’s worst-kept secret. 

A cigarette card (from the Obak Tobacco Company) depicts Henry Jansing, of the North West League's Tacoma team in 1910. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

And while dip usage among big-leaguers has declined since Tony Gwynn’s premature death from mouth cancer in 2014 and the related partial ban of smokeless tobacco from the 2016 collective bargaining agreement, a significant number of players still regularly partake both away from and in plain view of TV cameras. 

The practice is perhaps even more commonplace in high school, college and minor-league ball, despite the well-documented and publicized dangers "chew" presents.

But across MLB clubhouses this spring training, cans of chewing tobacco have been as conspicuous as ever. Fewer players than before have stacks of tins lined up in their lockers. The smell of long-cut doesn’t fill batting cages and dugouts like it used to. 

Why? Because Zyn is in.

Zyn is a brand of smokeless — and more importantly, tobacco-less — nicotine pouches, which have grown in popularity over the past few years and are now taking over perhaps the most nicotine-reliant place in America: major-league clubhouses. And while the pouches are just as addictive as traditional tobacco, given the nicotine, the absence of tobacco has many players turning to Zyn for what they believe to be a cleaner, healthier and less problematic alternative.

The company sells pouches, available in 10 flavors and two levels of nicotine intensity, that are similar in feel and size to snus (a Swedish tobacco product). The Zyns come in an Ice Breakers mints-style plastic container and provide a similar buzz to tobacco pouches without the accompanying inconvenient and repulsive dip spit. Made up of nicotine salts and various flavorings, the chemicals inside the microfiber pouches slowly dissolve over the course of an hour.

"I used Zyns to get off [dip]." Orioles rookie hurler DL Hall told FOX Sports. "They’re still definitely addictive because they have nicotine, but they don’t have the same harmful chemicals that tobacco has."

While Hall and a number of other players have used nicotine pouches like Zyn to quit tobacco, the FDA does not consider them a legitimate strategy for tobacco cessation when compared to other products like nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, nasal spray and inhaler. 

In a 2021 article from the Nebraska University School of Medicine, professional tobacco treatment specialist Jill Selzle said, "If someone is already using nicotine pouches and has been able to quit tobacco, I would suggest weaning off them with the goal of nicotine freedom entirely."

And though Zyns are free of dip’s laundry list of toxic ingredients, there’s still no proof that tobacco pouches don’t present any health risks. Because these products are so new to the market, scientists haven’t been able to study the long-term impacts of such high-level nicotine intake. And much like the rise of vape culture, Zyn sells a variety of eye-catching flavors designed to appeal to younger consumers who are more susceptible to any potential negative health effects.

Little of that matters to players, whose habits mirror a larger nationwide trend. 

In the first quarter of 2019, Zyn sold 6 million cans according to company filings. Two years later, the company reported 37 million cans sold, a whopping 516% increase.

And while Zyn is just one of many nicotine pouch options that have burst onto the scene over the past half-decade — others include On!, Lyft And Velo — Zyn is far and away the most popular. A report from Zyn’s Swedish parent company this past October estimated that the brand accounted for nearly two-thirds of American nicotine pouch sales over the preceding year.

Its stranglehold over the MLB market is just as strong. 

One American League player, who declined to be named so as to not lionize his nicotine addiction, estimated that he’ll toss in three six-milligram pouches at a time, four or five times over the course of a day. He claimed his level of nicotine intake (around 90 mg a day) is the norm among big-league "Zyners."

"I usually do two pouches at a time." Pirates pitcher JT Brubaker told FOX Sports. "The Zyns are smaller [than what I’m used to], so two simulates the feel of a big [Copenhagen] pinch." 

Brubaker, who, like Hall, dropped tobacco products for the substitute a few years ago, explained how omnipresent dip was as he grew up in and around the game. After dipping for the first time during his junior year of high school baseball, he continued through college, the minors and into the majors. At his peak usage, Brubaker claimed he would go through an entire tin in a day and a half.

"In the minor leagues especially, [dip] was always around," he said. "It’s its own weird community. Like, if you need one, someone always has one. And then you let them bum one later on."

But after a few shaky attempts to "slow down" his tobacco intake, Brubaker discovered Zyns and hasn’t turned back. The pouches have since become part of his game-day routine; he’ll toss two in at the beginning of a start for the buzz and will throw in another pair if he’s still pitching when the first batch dries out.

"I’ve heard stories about old clubhouses that had tins of dip just laying around everywhere," Brubaker shared. "But it’s different now. Zyns are taking over, man."

Another huge draw of Zyns, according to Brubaker and a number of other big-leaguers, is that unlike dip, nicotine pouches don’t need to be consumed on the sly. Various state laws prohibiting the use of chewing tobacco at sporting venues means that dipping is technically illegal at 16 of the league’s 30 ballparks. While those laws and MLB’s dip ban motivated some players to quit, others simply got better at hiding it. From concealing dip tins inside of socks or underneath sliding shorts to team group-chat text warnings about surprise visits from MLB’s "dip police," tobacco-loving ballplayers learned to adopt a more covert approach. 

Zyns, on the other hand, require no such tomfoolery.

That’s because nicotine pouches, unlike tobacco and nicotine vape products, have very few legal restrictions associated with them. Moreover, for many players, they're seen as the lesser of two evils. For instance, the aforementioned American Leaguer who consumes around 90 mg of nicotine a day openly acknowledged he may run into unintended health consequences down the road, but posited that at least his new habit is better than his old one.

The same player also recognized that despite Zyn’s skyrocketing popularity in and around MLB, there are still a number of hardcore tobacco users who look at Zyn with childish scorn.

"No matter what, there will always be players who want their Copenhagen long-cut wintergreen," he told FOX Sports.

"Zyn? That stuff is for babies," another major-leaguer chided. 

Over his left shoulder, stacked high in the depths of the top shelf of his locker? Tins of Copenhagen long-cut wintergreen.

Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.

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