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Work Drug

Chewing Tobacco’s Brad Pitt Moment

Moneyball is easily the greatest movie ever made about the use of statistical analysis to gain a competitive business advantage. The adaptation of Michael Lewis’s best-selling book, released this month after years of delay, stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics who upset the game’s establishment by turning to Ivy League number crunchers for help building a team that, in 2002, ran off an American League record 20-game win streak. It’s a big moment for stat nerds. But data analysis isn’t the movie’s only unlikely star. Moneyball is also a rare moment of glory for office tobacco spitters. Along with downing Twinkies, smashing clubhouse equipment, and joyriding his pickup in dirt lots, Beane is seen spewing tobacco juice into a cup.

Brad Pitt packing a lipper is the kind of publicity tobacco companies can no longer buy, at least not legally. In their 1998 master settlement agreement with state attorneys general, U.S. makers agreed to stop paying for product placements in movies and on TV. Even Major League Baseball is trying to wipe out chaw. Commissioner Bud Selig wants to ban tobacco in clubhouses. And the league says it asked Sony to remove the spitting from Moneyball. Sony (SNE) kept it as a matter of “authenticity.” Tobacco watchdogs accept this. “If it’s a real person who actually smoked or used tobacco, that doesn’t need to be adult rated,” says Jonathan Polansky, a consultant to University of California at San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research & Education. According to Lewis’s book, everyone “except for the Harvard graduates” in the Oakland A’s draft room in 2002 “had a lipful of chewing tobacco.”

Is Brad Pitt enough to make office chew cool? “I can’t see that happening,” says Ross Coomber, a sociologist at Plymouth University who has studied expectoration. Still, the movie could provide an opening for smokeless tobacco. As smoking and spitting get chased from every last workplace, tobacco companies have responded with options such as tablets and Snus—Swedish-style, dry, spitless packets. Smokeless sales volumes, says R.J. Reynolds Tobacco spokesman David Howard, have been increasing by about 5 percent annually even as cigarettes continue to decline. But for Hollywood, no smoke or spit means nothing to see. Spitting, notes Coomber, “is a very macho, aggressive thing.” Snussing? Not so much.

Boudway is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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