|Tobacco heir sees death
R.J. Reynolds’ son now crusading against product that killed his dad
While most sons associate memories of their dads with bear hugs and piggyback rides, Patrick Reynolds remembers an exhausted man, dying of emphysema caused by smoking.
The impact of his father’s suffering was so powerful, the tobacco industry heir later turned his back on the family business to campaign against cigarettes.
“The hand that once fed me, the tobacco industry, is the same hand that kills thousands of people,” Reynolds said.
The grandson of R.J. Reynolds will appear at numerous DuPage County high schools this week in an effort to discourage teens from smoking.
On Wednesday night, as part of National Kick Butts Day, he’ll head a panel of speakers during a dinner at the Lisle Hilton.
Events sponsors include the DuPage County Health Department and Central DuPage Hospital.
Reynolds father, R.J. Jr., died in 1964 when Patrick was 16.
“I believe he was in denial,” Reynolds said. “He thought he had asthma.”
He later watched other family members, including his brother R.J. Reynolds III, succumb to cigarette-related illnesses.
Those losses led to his desire to speak out against tobacco use, starting with testimony before Congress in 1986 supporting banning cigarette advertisements.
“Sometimes, the greatest callings in life come out of the deepest wounds,” Reynolds said.
It was the start of an anti-tobacco crusade for Reynolds, who sold his company stock and went against his family’s wishes by going public.
“They didn’t like the idea; they felt it would be an embarrassment,” he said.
Reynolds started smoking at age 16 in the same year his father died. He continued until the mid-1980s after repeated attempts at quitting.
His message to other smokers is that it’s possible to stop with proper treatment.
And his message to the state is that Illinois lags behind in funding tobacco-prevention education and in banning smoking in public places.
“It’s time Illinois came on board,” Reynolds said.
Despite widespread knowledge of the hazards of cigarettes, about 17.2 percent of DuPage adults are smokers, county health department officials said.
And teenagers are still lighting up. Statistics show 29.2 percent of Illinois high school students smoke, above the national average of 28 percent.
Jeffrey Huml, a Central DuPage Hospital physician specializing in lung cancer, sees between three and four new cases a week.
“We really are in the midst of an epidemic,” he said.
Huml’s patients range from ages 40 to 80. His youngest case is a 17-year-old.
He blames the tobacco industry for covering up the adverse effects of cigarettes and creating an environmental where smoking was the norm.
Naperville resident Renee Kosiarek, who will speak at the Wednesday forum, says it’s doubtful any of her relatives who smoked knew about the potential hazards of the habit.
“They didn’t know how dangerous it was, their parents didn’t know and they grew up with it,” she said.
Kosiarek’s father died of lung cancer in 2002, and her mother-in-law and uncle passed away in the next two years of the same disease.
Her father’s death inspired her to organize a lung cancer awareness walk, which was held in 2003 and 2004. Part of Kosiarek’s goal is to remove the stigma associated with the illness and bring greater recognition to it.
“Everyone thinks it’s just a smoker’s disease and blames the victim,” Kosiarek said.
“I feel it doesn’t get the attention and publicity it needs when it kills so many people.”