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Getting Tough on Snuff

By Myers, Hortense | The Saturday Evening Post, September 1985 | Go to article overview

Getting Tough on Snuff


Myers, Hortense, The Saturday Evening Post


"A lot of parents are not anymore well-informed than I was."

Betty Ann Marsee's voice was low and even while discussing a subject that has become dominant in her life. She is familiar with death in many forms. A registered nurse at the Valley View Hospital in Ada, Oklahoma, she knows about death personally as well as professionally. Her husband, Condly Marsee, died in 1982--but it was the death of her 19-year-old son, Marvin Sean, February 25, 1984, that led Mrs. Marsee to undertake a crusade which has already gained international notice.

Sean was a bright, handsome teenager, a track star named the outstanding athlete of his high school in Talihina, Oklahoma, in 1983. By the time he died, he had become a grotesque figure who scarcely appeared human. Cancer had destroyed his tongue, his throat and his jaw.

Dr. Carl Hook, who tried vainly to save Sean's life, attributed the cancer to the young man's use of snuff. This form of tobacco, used orally or by inhalation, has been around since the 17th century. Commonly used in the 18th century, snuff (and later chewing or plug tobacco) was the dominant form of tobacco in use in the United States until the 1860s, when pipe tobacco became more popular, only to be surpassed eventually by cigars and then cigarettes. By 1938, cigarettes accounted for half of U.S. tobacco consumption and continued to outstrip other forms of tobacco use.

But in rural America, snuff dipping and tobacco chewing continued, in part because of the danger of fire from cigarettes. And advertising by the tobacco industry has put a new emphasis on so-called "smokeless tobacco" since the federal government began requiring health warnings on cigarettes. Such requirements are not in effect for smokeless tobacco. The moist type of snuff Sean began using when he was 12 is placed in the mouth between the gums and the cheek. His mother said his brands were "Copenhagen" and "Skoal," which carry no health warnings.

"Several months before Sean died, when he thought he would still live, he expressed the hope that he could travel around Oklahoma with Dr. Hook. He wanted to tell young people they should not use snuff and it definitely was bad," Mrs. Marsee said.

"A lot of parents are not any more well-informed than I was. While I had a gut feeling that if cigarettes were dangerous, then snuff lying next to a membrane would be dangerous, I had no definite proof that I could give him," he said. "Teen-agers want proof. I had no absolute proof."

But elsewhere, such proof had been accumulating. In a 1979 study by Arden G Christen, D.D.S., 9 of 14 college athletes who chewed tobacco regularly had a noticeable leukoplakia, a white patch in the mouth often located where the tobacco touches the gum. Many doctors believe this is a pre-cancer condition. Overwhelming evidence of the health problems caused by snuff can also be found in India, where tobacco chewing is a widespread habit. Thirty to 40 percent of the population of India chews tobacco, and 35 to 40 percent of all cancer is diagnosed as oral cancer.

In a study of 10,000 people in India, 33 percent reported having used tobacco in some form. When the frequency of leukoplakia was calculated for those who smoked and chewed tobacco versus those who used no form of tobacco, the difference was striking. Leukoplakia was observed in 9.9 percent of those using tobacco and in 0.03 percent of those not using it. Another study of the incidence of oral cancer among 57,518 industrial workers in India found not one case of oral cancer in those who used no tobacco; for the entire group, the rate of oral cancer was 25 out of 100,000 per year.

After Sean's death, Mrs. Marsee kept thinking about the crusade her son had wanted to wage. She began looking for an attorney willing to be a David in filing a lawsuit against the tobacco-industry Goliath. She found that attorney in Dania Deschamps-Braly.

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