The jury in the smokeless-tobacco product-liability lawsuit in Oklahoma City heard the top officer of the United States Tobacco Co. say in videotaped testimony that "I am not aware that anyone has said that snuff causes cancer."
In the videotaped testimony prepared for the trial and shown to jurors Monday and yesterday, Louis F. Bantle, United States Tobacco's chairman and chief executive officer, said that he didn't know, for example, of a February 1985 National Cancer Advisory Board statement that "there is sufficient evidence for a cause-and-effect relationship between smokeless-tobacco use and human cancer."
The jury is hearing a lawsuit brought by Betty Marsee of Ada, Okla., who contends that the use of United States Tobacco snuff by her son Sean, starting when he was 12, caused the mouth cancer that killed him at 19. She is seeking $147.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages from United States Tobacco, which is based in Greenwich, Conn., and had 1985 net earnings of $93.5 million.
In the portions of videotape screened for the jury in U.S. District Court, Bantle also testified that "I have not heard of" the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a unit funded by the World Health Organization. In September 1985, the IARC found "sufficient evidence that oral use of snuff . . . is carcinogenic to humans."
Bantle said he did know of, but did not read, a March 1986 report to the U.S. surgeon general by an advisory panel that said, "The scientific evidence is strong that the use of snuff can cause cancer in humans."
In any event, he said, he disagrees with the cancer board, the IARC and the surgeon general's panel because he does not believe the scientific evidence warrants translating their findings into a health warning on cans of Copenhagen, Skoal and other United States Tobacco snuff products.
Plaintiff's lawyer George W. Braly asked Bantle, who was vice president for marketing from 1968 to 1973, if the idea had ever "entered your mind" that a health warning might have hurt United States Tobacco's sales, which have soared in recent years. "No, sir," Bantle replied.
For some time, United States Tobacco has printed a warning on the containers of smokeless tobacco it ships to Sweden. The product "contains nicotine causing a strong dependency equal to that of tobacco smoking," the warning says in part.
"Well, it's the law in Sweden," Bantle testified.
He told Braly he subscribes to a 1954 tobacco industry statement that "an interest in public health is a basic responsibility paramount to every other consideration in our business."
Braly took Bantle's deposition on videotape on April 3 -- just 10 days after the surgeon general's report and five weeks after President Reagan signed legislation requiring that health warnings on smokeless-tobacco products be rotated. As an out-of-state witness, Bantle could not be compelled to go from Connecticut to Oklahoma, but he was required under federal court rules to give a videotaped deposition instead.
A January 1985 unsigned strategy memo by United States Tobacco's Task Force on the Regulatory/Political Environment said: "Legally, it is better if we are forced to add a warning rather than voluntarily putting one on."
"I didn't make that statement," Bantle said. "I don't know who wrote this."
The strategy memo also discussed "NNN," the informal name of a potent tobacco carcinogen in a class called nitrosamines. The memo said: "NNN -- major health problem." The word "major" was underlined.
"I don't know who wrote this," Bantle said.
Company records show that, 11 years earlier, a U.S. Agricultural Research Service tobacco expert alerted United States Tobacco's vice president of research to a report about to be published in Science magazine saying that NNN "has been positively identified in unburned tobacco" at levels 19 to 886 times the peak levels found in food and beverages.
"Our initial approach was to attempt to discredit the claims," United States Tobacco scientist Richard Manning said in a memo produced by Braly.
Bantle said the company "made a judgment" that no action be taken. In the two ensuing years, United States Tobacco's direct research outlays totaled $26,863, he said.
The jury, the first to try a product-safety lawsuit over the death of a smokeless-tobacco user, has been hearing evidence since May 19. The case may go to the jury in about two weeks. The presiding judge is David L. Russell.
A key issue in the case is whether United States Tobacco promoted and marketed snuff to youths under 18. Under "written policies . . . dating way back into the '30s, we never have -- and we never will -- market tobacco to persons under 18," Bantle testified.
The cigarette industry's policy is not to give free samples to persons under 21. Bantle acknowledged that "there are more chances of a person staying with a product if they started in their early adulthood. . . . "
He did not dispute that he had said at a 1968 company meeting, as reported in the minutes: "We must sell the use of tobacco in the mouth and appeal to young people . . . we hope to start a fad."
Bantle also conceded that boys could be reached by certain United States Tobacco marketing methods, such as advertisements in Sports Illustrated that offered free snuff samples to anyone who mailed in a coupon.
The coupon processor "reviewed the signatures," Bantle testified. "If they looked like they were coming from young people, they were not answered." Some Sports Illustrated readers are under 18, he acknowledged.
Bantle was asked about a 1977 interview in The Chicago Tribune in which he was quoted as saying, "We've gotten excellent sales growth from young people."
"I don't remember that statement," Bantle testified. "But I don't deny it."