If your son is looking for a pinup for his locker, offer him a photo of Sean Marsee. Better yet, offer him two photos of Sean. One picture is of a handsome 18-year-old athlete, the other is of a kid who had his face carved away in a desperate attempt to stop the cancer that killed him at 19.
Just to make the message clear, take the photos and paste them over an ad for smokeless tobacco, because that is what his doctor says killed Sean. The stuff called snuff. He first put this moist tobacco in his mouth when he was 13, right there between cheek and gum.
Sean's pictures won't make pretty viewing. But maybe these photos will be an effective counter ad to the millions spent by the tobacco companies. It's the promotion of snuff that gave U.S. Tobacco Co. the largest profit margin in the Fortune 500 last year. It's the ads that have turned 12 million more Americans since l978 into what are politely called "users." Addicts is another word, and 3 million are under age 21.
Louis Bantle, chairman of the board of U.S. Tobacco, once boasted to a reporter: "In Texas today, a kid wouldn't dare go to school, even if he doesn't use the product, without a can in his Levis."
Betty Ann Marsee wants to turn this around. The horror photos are, after all, the last portraits of her son. Today the Oklahoma woman is suing U.S. Tobacco, the giant maker of Skoal and Copenhagen, for $147 million in damages.
In the fourth week of a courtroom trial in Oklahoma City, she is claiming that snuff is an "unreasonably dangerous" product, addictive, and cancer-causing. The product came with no warning label. Indeed, her lawyers claim, the advertising, with endless endorsements by sports figures, implied that smokeless tobacco was harmless, even helpful, to an athlete.
sk,3 "Anything that moves in sports, U.S. Tobacco has either put a logo on it, paid it to appear in an ad, given it a scholarship or sponsored it," says Dr. Gregory Connolly, the director of dental health for Massachusetts and star crusader against smokeless tobacco.
sk,3 The tobacco people deny everything. They deny that smokeless tobacco causes cancer, despite compelling research that proves the opposite. Snuff can have extraordinary levels of cancer-causing nitrosamine. There is as much nitrosamine in five cans of some brands as in a ton of bacon.
They also deny, combatting common sense and evidence, that smokeless tobacco is marketed to kids. Greg Connolly, looking at a Skoal promotion for a free Swiss army knife, notes wryly: "I don't know any 40-year-old who's interested in a Swiss army knife, but I know a lot of 15-year-old boys who would give their eye teeth for one."
The Marsee case may be the strongest suit against tobacco that has yet come to court. It has the potential for eventually putting smokeless tobacco out of business. But win or not, snuff is already on the defensive.
This year, Congress has passed laws banning electronic ads for snuff, legislating warnings on print ads and labels on packages. The industry, under pressure, no longer uses current sports figures for ads. For the first time since l977, sales have gone down -- a mere 2 percent, but down.
Even some athletes have come around. This winter Connolly made his pitch to the Kansas City Royals, and all but two snuff users quit dipping and spitting, especially on network television. Across the country, fewer coaches of college and high-school teams allow snuff as a "safe" tobacco.
None of this will help Sean Marsee, whose life, his doctor believes, was eaten away from the spot between his gum and his cheek. When you put aside all the nice legalisms, all the civilized debate, and courtroom etiquette, you have to face the willingness of the tobacco industry to push an addictive and deadly product.