By Steve Jones
Patrick Reynolds promised Wednesday night that a change is coming to America.
“The smoke free society is on its way,” the grandson of the founder of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. told the approximately 30 people who gathered at HGTC to hear him talk against smoking. “I promise you.”
Reynolds said the three best things audience members and others can push to help stop people from smoking are higher taxes on cigarettes, anti-smoking education on television and in schools, and strong local and statewide bans against smoking.
It’s the latter target that pushed Smoke Free Horry to bring Reynolds in from California.
The organization was founded to work for smoking bans in Horry County and all its cities. So far, said Smoke Free Horry executive director Larry White, also a Conway city councilman, bans are in effect in Surfside Beach and Atlantic Beach. He hopes North Myrtle Beach will enact its ban in early February and that Myrtle Beach and Conway will introduce ordinances to do so before the group’s $2 million federal grant runs its course in mid-March.
White said Wednesday afternoon that he would be pleased with Reynolds’ speech if he mentioned Smoke Free Horry during his talk, which he did, and jokingly if more than two people showed up to hear him.
He said Reynolds did two television interviews Wednesday and will be in the newspaper and on a radio show Thursday. A third television station showed up at HGTC’s Burroughs and Chapin Auditorium to ask him some questions before the speech and film him during his presentation.
While the grandson of one of the country’s gilded families, Reynolds said in his talk that he is not a rich man. He said he sold his tobacco stock in 1979 and inherited $2 million of the family fortune which he blew on youthful exuberances.
He said he was the son of the second of his father’s four wives and that after the divorce, he didn’t see his father for six years. When the fateful day came, he said he was ushered into a room where his father was lying down. He told his son that he had asthma.
“Anything to do with your smoking?” Reynolds said he asked his father.
“I don’t think so,” his father answered.
Reynolds’ father and brother both died of smoking-related diseases, he said, and in 1986 he began speaking out on the evils of tobacco.
He said his first venture was to testify before Congress which was considering limiting tobacco advertising. When it became known that one of R.J. Reynolds’ grandsons would speak against tobacco, there was demand from those who wanted to listen.
Eventually, he founded the Foundation for a Tobaccofree Earth and his efforts were lauded in this country and abroad.
He projected slides to show how much tobacco spends on point-of-sale advertising and retailer discounts and how little South Carolina spends on tobacco prevention programs, earning an “F” from the American Lung Association for the lack of effort. He spoke of how liberally his grandfather and other early tobacco barons spent to influence politicians, and wondered if the same things could be going on today in S.C.
“There’s no excuse for (the state not having a higher cigarette tax),” he said, “unless the politicians are still taking tobacco money.”
Among Reynolds’ slides were a number that depicted past tobacco ads to show how they targeted young people.
Sharon Sweat, a senior health promotion major from Coastal Carolina University, said she didn’t realize before hearing Reynolds talk that the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarette packages wasn’t forced onto them until after evidence had been made public that tobacco companies knew how harmful smoking can be.
Sweat said she was at the talk because one of her professors suggested class members might pick up tips on how to get people involved in health programs.
Alexandria Floyd, a CCU junior and also a health promotion major, said she was surprised no more people were at the presentation.
Floyd said she works for Smoke Free Horry on campus and is helping to organize events on campus, promising there will be more in the spring.
That’s about the time the White said Smoke Free Horry will need another influx of cash.
He said the organization has spent about two-thirds of its federal funding on salaries, travel and advertising in all media.
He said it is not allowed to lobby governments directly and looks for residents in each area to push their elected officials for a smoking ban.
Without new funding, he said the organization will have to give up its offices on Main Street in Conway as well as its paid staff, of which he is one.
But he would stay on, even if he doesn’t get a salary for it.
“I’d be willing,” he said.