The King of Snuff

By Denny, Jeffrey | Common Cause Magazine, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

The King of Snuff


Denny, Jeffrey, Common Cause Magazine


For a brief time eight years ago, two distinct American subcultures clashed in an Oklahoma City federal courtroom: millionaire tobacco company executives, and the people who make them rich.

There was Betty Ann Marsee, a registered nurse and recent widow raising her children in a trailer park in Talihina, Okla., a remote timber town of 1,300 where fun is a sweaty afternoon at the rodeo, and fathers and sons spit tobacco juice together.

Then there was Louis Francis Bantle, the soft-spoken, $2 million-a-year chair of U.S. Tobacco of Greenwich, Conn., maker of Copenhagen moist oral snuff. You won't find many tobacco stains on the sidewalks of Greenwich, an archetypal suburban township of blueblood wealth where battle lives. Saabs and Volvos park in front of tony Greenwich Avenue boutiques, estates sit at the end of long driveways along rolling wooded roads, and fun is an afternoon of paddle tennis at the Greenwich Country Club.

The worlds inhabited by Marsee and Bantle collided when she sued U.S. Tobacco for $147 million in 1985, alleging that her son Sean's Copenhagen habit caused the mouth cancer that killed him, and that the company knew its product could cause cancer.

The jury heard that Sean had begun dipping snuff at age 12, when he got a free can of Copenhagen at the rodeo. A handsome, popular, high-school track star, Sean used four or more cans a week and rarely left home without a "dip" tucked between his right cheek and tongue. He thought it was healthier than cigarettes and even chided his sister for smoking.

Not long after he turned 18, however, a small whitish lesion -- leukoplakia, an early sign of a tumor -- appeared on Sean's tongue. Weeks after high-school graduation Sean had a third of his tongue cut out. Surgeons gradually carved away portions of Sean's jaw and neck before they gave up and sent him home to die. He was 19.

Bantle didn't come to court to testify in his company's defense. In a videotaped deposition screened for the jury, Bantle said, "I am not aware that anyone has said that snuff causes cancer." Other witnesses for U.S. Tobacco testified that the connection between snuff and cancer lacked scientific proof. The jury found for U.S. Tobacco.

But publicity over the trial, Betty Marsee's subsequent testimony before Congress and new studies linking snuff use to oral cancer in humans finally pushed Congress in 1986 to impose curbs on smokeless tobacco that had been on cigarettes since the '60s and '70s -- warning labels, excise taxes, a ban on TV and radio ads

Since Marsee's death, however, snuff dipping in America has only increased, especially among teenagers. And thanks to U.S. Tobacco's political clout in Washington, critics say, the 1986 law has not been fully carried out and new measures have gone nowhere. Meanwhile U.S. Tobacco -- renamed UST Inc. in 1987 -- virtually has cornered the snuff market and racked up sensational profits, reaching No. 1 among the Fortune 500 in return on assets and, this year, the $1 billion milestone in sales.

"U.S. Tobacco is probably the best example of a company that is putting corporate profits above the health of our children," says Matthew Myers, counsel to the Coalition on Smoking OR Health, a Washington-based group that includes the American Cancer Society. "Smokeless tobacco was a dying habit until U.S. Tobacco proved that through slick marketing and advertising it could create a whole new generation of addicts."

UST has avoided the harsh spotlight on cigarette companies and their marketing tactics, largely because the snuff maker does most of its business in rural areas. Meanwhile the company has lavished its snuff profits on charitable causes and political campaign coffers, gaining not only respect in Greenwich social circles but, Myers claims, "influence with members of Congress and the executive branch to suppress reasonable and responsible regulations. …

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