Words of Wisdom

UST’s Chief Made Dipping Hip (Archive)

NOTE: I’m archiving this story here because I’d hate for it to be lost. It was originally published on WSJ.com October 19, 2010 written by Stephen Miller. Original article can be found at this location.

KTC Classic Story

Louis Bantle made dipping snuff into a national pastime.

Mr. Bantle, who died Oct. 10 at age 81 after a long struggle with lung cancer and emphysema, was chairman of United States Tobacco Co. for two decades beginning in 1973, a period that saw an explosion in snuff’s popularity, particularly among younger users.

In the 1970s, sales of the company’s Skoal and Copenhagen tobaccos were relatively small and concentrated in the upper Midwest, where Scandinavian woodcutters had spread the smokeless habit in the 19th century. Mr. Bantle ramped up advertising featuring football and rodeo star Walt Garrison and other rugged athletes. He also introduced a series of “starter” products, including fruit-flavored tobacco. Skoal Bandits were originally touted under the slogan “Take a pouch instead of a puff.”

The result was annual revenue that jumped to $1 billion from $100 million in two decades and a vastly larger group of users. About 9% of U.S. adult males between 18 and 24 regularly used smokeless tobacco in 1991, up from about 3% in 1970, according to a 2002 Centers for Disease Control report.

Snuff-dipping spread to areas of the country that had never had a market for the product. “If you go to high school in Texas and you don’t have a can of snuff in your pocket, you’re out,” Mr. Bantle told Forbes in 1980.

A self-described recovering alcoholic who used Alcoholics Anonymous to conquer his addiction, Mr. Bantle said he was shocked at the brutal treatment of alcoholics he witnessed on a business trip to Russia in 1988.

After retiring in 1993, he established the International Institute for Alcohol Education and Training to introduce AA’s 12-step model to Russia. The institute has helped foster other AA groups across Russia – more than 300, according to a 2007 Forbes article.

A graduate of Syracuse University, Mr. Bantle served in the U.S. Marines during the Korean War. In 1962, he joined U.S. Tobacco.

“We must sell the use of tobacco in the mouth and appeal to young people,” he said, according to the minutes of a marketing meeting in 1968.

After he became company head in 1973, U.S. Tobacco partnered with Swedish Tobacco Co. to import Borkum Riff pipe tobacco to the U.S. The successful introduction helped fund a national ad campaign for Copenhagen and Skoal that helped spur sales. By the late 1980s, U.S. Tobacco held more than 80% of the wet-snuff market; today, under Altria Group Inc., it continues to far outsell its rivals.

Sales gains were temporarily halted after the family of a teenager who died of oral cancer unsuccessfully sued U.S. Tobacco in 1986. Health warnings were mandated for snuff packages the same year.

C. Everett Koop, the U.S. Surgeon General at the time, crusaded against smokeless tobacco and sparred with Mr. Bantle.

In a memoir, Dr. Koop described him: “Looking like a courtier of Louis XIV, [he] took an antique sterling-silver snuff box out of his pocket and tucked some tobacco between his lower gum and cheek.”

More often, though, Mr. Bantle smoked Kools.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A6

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