By Eric Swanson
ADA — Patrick Reynolds’ family owed its fame and fortune to tobacco.
But the grandson of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds changed his mind about the tobacco industry when he saw his father, R.J. Reynolds Jr., dying of cigarette-induced emphysema.
Patrick shared his family’s story, including his relatives’ deaths from smoking-related illnesses, with the audience Thursday night at East Central University. The Stomp Tobacco Outta Pontotoc County (STOP) Coalition hosted the event in conjunction with the Brandon Whitten Institute for Addiction and Recovery at ECU.
Patrick said his parents divorced when he was 3 years old, so he never really knew his father. But when Patrick was 9, he wrote R.J. Jr. a letter and asked to see him. Even though R.J. Jr. was sick, he agreed to a meeting.
When Patrick saw his father again, R.J. Jr. was lying on his back, gasping for breath and using an oxygen bottle. He was suffering from emphysema, but he told Patrick that he had asthma.
“Of course, he was smoking even then,” Patrick said. “And I said, ‘Got anything to do with your smoking?’ And he said, ‘I don’t think so.’
“There’s R.J. Jr., denying that he’s dying from the products which made our family rich and powerful.”
The memories of R.J. Jr.’s death prompted Patrick to join the anti-smoking movement. Then in 1986, he met U.S. Sen. Robert Packwood of Oregon during a tour of Washington, D.C.
Patrick said he asked Packwood why tobacco taxes were so low, and Packwood invited him to testify in front of a Senate subcommittee. Patrick did not want to testify at first, but he began studying the tobacco industry after returning to his home in Los Angeles.
“The more I learned, the more disturbed and angry I became,” he said.
The next step in Patrick’s transformation into an anti-smoking activist came when the American Lung Association told him that U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman was conducting hearings on the tobacco industry.
Patrick testified during the hearings, saying he supported a total ban on tobacco advertising. News organizations covered the hearings and turned Patrick into a celebrity.
Suddenly, Patrick was a leading advocate for the anti-smoking movement.
‘Let local people decide’
Patrick went on to establish the Foundation for a Smoke-Free America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people about smoking and tobacco. He has also testified before Congress, as well as state lawmakers, on a variety of tobacco-related issues.
Patrick said 29 states have outlawed smoking in public places, but Oklahoma has not. He added that Oklahoma allows smoking in all bars and restaurants, but communities cannot pass their own smoking laws.
Patrick said anti-smoking advocates recently asked the Legislature to allow cities to ban indoor smoking, but lawmakers rejected the measure.
“We need to return power to the local communities,” he said. “That’s what America’s all about — let local people decide what they want. That’s why we have states’ rights, and we need to get that power back in the hands of our local communities.”
Patrick also complained that tobacco companies are using deceptive advertising to convince people — especially children — to try their products. As he spoke, several tobacco ads aimed at children appeared on an overhead screen.
He countered those ads with parodies of Joe Camel, a cartoon figure that served as the mascot for Camel cigarettes from 1987 through 1997. Another, more serious ad showed several children denouncing the tobacco industry’s promotional tactics.
Patrick said he would rather address a group of middle school or high school students, because they haven’t decided yet whether they will take up smoking. He added that most college students have already made that decision.
Patrick said when he talks to younger students, he appeals to their emotions instead of talking about the politics of smoking.
“If I stood in front of the audience and said, ‘Tobacco is bad for you, and 29 states have now banned smoking in all bars and restaurants,’ you’ll go to sleep,” he said. “If I connect with your heart from my anger, from my sadness, from my love, my fear ... If I connect from my heart with you, you will hear what I have to say.”