Tobacco heir snuffs myths
Watchung Hills gets lowdown on lighting up
Thursday, April 27, 2006
BY NYIER ABDOUStar-Ledger Staff
Many people try to persuade young people not to smoke, but few can be as riveting as the grandson of tobacco tycoon R.J. Reynolds.
Speaking to freshmen and sophomores at Watchung Hills Regional High School, tobacco scion Patrick Reynolds accused companies like the one his father and grandfather steered of shamelessly courting the youngest of potential buyers as "new recruits."
Reynolds relentlessly picked apart glossy cigarette ad campaigns, seeking to de-mythologize the youthful aura of cool implied by the signature brands his grandfather founded.
In a stinging reproach of campaigns by Camel and Kool cigarettes, both made by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Reynolds called new "candy-flavored" cigarettes, from "Mardi Gras Berry Blast" to "Winter Mocha Mint," a "very insidious appeal to our teens."
"The tobacco companies have targeted you," Reynolds told students, flashing pictures of Kool cigarette boxes with pictures of rap stars printed on them.
"This is evil. This is totally going over to the dark side," he said.
Students gasped in shock when Reynolds showed them another campaign offering a free radio with two packs of Kools.
The talk was made possible by a Johnson & Johnson grant given to school nurse Nan Masterson, with additional funds from Somerset Medical Center and the Cancer Coalition of Somerset County.
Patrick Reynolds estimates 40 percent to 50 percent of his family has died due to smoking. R.J. Reynolds Jr., his father, died of emphysema in 1964 and R.J. Reynolds III, Patrick Reynold's brother, also died of emphysema.
"There was R.J. Reynolds ... dying from the products that made our family rich and powerful," Patrick Reynolds said, pointing to a black-and-white picture of his enfeebled father. He died when Patrick Reynolds was 15.
Patrick Reynolds, president of tobaccofree.org, sees his talks as an "initiation rite" into life. He tries to whip up some anger among youths over being manipulated by ads.
"It's very feeling-based," he said.
He and his siblings inherited company stock when their father died, but nothing like the $28 million their father inherited in 1932.
"He thought we all had to work for a living," Patrick Reynolds said in an interview yesterday. He sold his stock in 1979.
In 1986, Patrick Reynolds stumbled into anti-smoking activism when a chance conversation with Sen. Robert Packwood about the benefits of cigarette taxes raised eyebrows because of his illustrious family name.
Patrick Reynolds, who yesterday called New Jersey's $2.40 cigarette tax "awesome," said the moment was an "epiphany."
Though no one in his family had worked at R.J. Reynolds for decades, Patrick Reynolds ended up testifying at a congressional hearing on banning cigarette advertising.
"I was catapulted into the spotlight," Reynolds, a self-described "outgoing personality type," recalled. In 1989, he founded the Foundation for a Smokefree America.
The message Reynolds said he hopes kids take away is that smoking is addictive. "Once you start cigarettes, you can't stop," he told students. "Most smokers will try to quit and fail."
He saved special venom for makers of chewing tobacco. He told the emotional story of Oklahoma teen Sean Marsee, who developed a cancerous sore on his tongue from chewing tobacco.
Starting with a handsome image of the former track star at age 17, Reynolds told a harrowing tale of how Marsee had to have his tongue amputated, and then more body parts as the cancer spread. Students were horrified by a second picture of Marsee, his face and body greatly disfigured, not long before his death at 19.
"I wouldn't want to be that kid," said 14-year-old Monica Perez. "It (only) took him two years to die."
Fellow freshman Thomas Krause, 14, said he had thought the story would be about how Marsee overcame the cancer. He was shocked to learned the cancer killed Marsee.
Chris Pasi, 15, agreed Marsee's story was "pretty compelling."
"I know some kids who dip," he said. "I didn't even know that could happen."
As for Pasi, however, "I'm not into that stuff," he said. "I already know I'm not going to smoke."
Nyier Abdou works in the Somerset County bureau. She may be reached at email@example.com or (908) 429-9925.