By Les Gehrett
Patrick Reynolds, the grandson of R.J. Reynolds, founder of one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, shared his family’s story Wednesday with more than 1,200 West Albany High School students.
The story is not a happy one. Reynolds’ parents divorced when he was 3, and for the next several years, he didn’t see his father at all.
He begged for the chance to see his father and as a 9-year old was finally given the chance. The meeting was not what he expected. His father, R.J. Reynolds Jr., was lying down, struggling to breathe because of emphysema. On his chest were placed sandbags, used in those days to exercise stricken lungs.
“I asked him if he was sick because of smoking, and he wouldn’t say. He couldn’t admit that the product that made my family wealthy beyond dreams was now killing him,” Reynolds said.
His father died of emphysema in 1964.
Years later Reynolds’ older brother also died of tobacco-related disease. As a result, in 1986, Reynolds went on the offensive against the industry his family helped create.
Reynolds testified before Congress about the health problems caused by smoking. He has since created the Foundation for a Tobaccofree Earth and works full-time to promote awareness of the dangers of tobacco.
Reynolds spoke Wednesday at South Albany and West Albany high schools and today at Lebanon High School. On Friday he will be back in Albany, speaking to students at Memorial Middle School at 9:30 a.m. and Calapooia Middle School at 1:30.
Reynolds, who listed his age as “somewhere between 40 and death,” invited anyone from the community interested in tobacco issues to attend.
He said that he especially enjoys speaking to younger students because that is the age when decisions are made about smoking or using chewing tobacco. Reynolds said the tobacco industry knows it must attract youngsters in order to stay alive.
“Almost no one over the age of 19 becomes addicted to tobacco. Studies show that about 90 percent of smokers started before age 19,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said this explains industry efforts to target youth by promoting chewing-tobacco use by baseball stars and by creating cartoon-character figures such as Joe Camel. Reynolds said the big push in the industry today is the placement of cigarette and chewing tobacco displays in stores.
Tobacco companies spend billions paying stores to make room for the displays, which are placed at a child’s height, according to him. Viewing these displays day after day creates curiosity in children to try the product, Reynolds said.
“I don’t know how you feel about this, but it makes me angry,” Reynolds told the students.
Reynolds said the average smoker keeps smoking for about 17 years before finally quitting, typically after numerous unsuccessful attempts. At one pack a day, the habit costs $1,200 to $1,400 a year, with a total cost of over $20,000 in the life of the average smoker.
“What else could you do with $20,000?” Reynolds asked.