By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The family of the late baseball star Tony Gwynn, a Hall of Famer who played with the San Diego Padres, has filed a lawsuit in California accusing makers of dipping tobacco of causing his death from cancer by getting him hooked at a young age.
With the legal action, Gwynn becomes one of the most high-profile Major League Baseball stars to have his name used in a public attack on the tobacco industry. His family said Tuesday that Gwynn used "dip," which is tobacco placed between the lip and the gum, because he thought it would be more healthful than smoking.
"Throughout his career, our dad was proud of his work helping kids and being a positive role model to his fans," his daughter Anisha Gwynn-Jones said in a statement Tuesday. "But the whole time, the tobacco companies were using his addiction to turn him into their ultimate walking billboard."
The lawsuit filed on Monday in San Diego Superior Court alleges negligence, product liability and fraud. It comes two years after the player, often photographed with a wad of tobacco in his right cheek, died at age 54.
Over the decades, many baseball players have used smokeless tobacco on the field.
Gwynn became addicted to smokeless tobacco beginning at age 17 as a freshman baseball player at San Diego State University, where he was given free samples in a marketing scheme that used contract employees to reach out to athletes, the lawsuit stated.
Gwynn used dipping tobacco for over 30 years, often going to sleep with a wad in his mouth and even reaching for his pack of Skoal after a surgery in 1991 to remove a benign tumor, according to the lawsuit filed by his widow, Alicia, and the couple's two adult children.
In 2010, Gwynn was diagnosed with cancer of his parotid salivary gland and died four years later of respiratory failure caused by the disease, the lawsuit stated.
The civil lawsuit filed against Altria Group, one of the world's largest tobacco companies, and its subsidiary Smokeless Tobacco Company, which produces the brand Skoal, seeks damages in an amount to be determined based on evidence.
A spokesman for Altria Group declined to comment.
The lawsuit says that when Gwynn became hooked on smokeless tobacco in the late 1970s, the cans bore no warning labels and were promoted as safer than cigarettes, even though the industry knew their products caused addiction and cancer.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Sharon Bernstein, Bernard Orr)