Reynolds tobacco heir fights to switch people off smoking

May 06, 1993|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer

Like many Americans, he had a pack-a-day smoking habit that lasted more than a decade.

And he'll quickly tell you and anyone who'll listen that the same cigarettes killed his parents.

What's different is that Patrick C. Reynolds is a grandson of R. J. Reynolds, whose company urged America to walk a mile for a Camel, and to buy some Winstons, Salems and Vantage along the way. Now, he travels the country advocating a smoke-free society.

"My father died from emphysema smoking the family brands," Mr. Reynolds said yesterday at a gathering of state officials, doctors and health advocates. "That's a big reason why I do what I do."

Mr. Reynolds, 44, a former actor with anchorman good looks, strolled the dais at the governor's annual cancer summit. With practiced ease, this scion of the leaf cited smoking statistics ("Sixty percent of smokers start before the age of 14") and recalled the family's reaction to his anti-cigarette campaign ("My brother Will said, 'You're going to do what?' ")

He was a 9-year-old when he watched his father, R. J. "Dick" Reynolds Jr., gasp for air, his chest laden with sandbags in a vain effort to strengthen his diaphragm. The elder Reynolds, when he saw his wife smoking, would tell her it was a "dirty, disgusting habit."

She used the same words to her son. "Of course I didn't listen to her," he said in an interview.

Yet as he puffed away for about 15 years, Mr. Reynolds said, he became increasingly troubled by the business founded by his family.

"I didn't want to earn money from a product I knew was causing death and addiction," he said.

In 1979, with a cigarette in one hand and a phone in the other, he sold his R. J. Reynolds stock, the bulk of his $2.5 million inheritance. Most of that money was later lost in a business failure of ironic proportions: the Reynolds Stop Smoking Program.

But it was not until 1986 that Mr. Reynolds decided to speak out against tobacco, spurred by what he learned about the industry's power to influence lawmakers and push its products. He was by this time a nonsmoker himself.

Before mounting his crusade, he met with his three brothers. They were mainly concerned that his actions would devalue the stock and the family name. At best they gave mild support.

His brother Will's view was, "If you don't smoke don't start. But if you do smoke, smoke a Reynolds product."

Then Patrick went to see the Reynolds cousins, some of whom were the descendants of another family business: Reynolds Aluminum.

"My tobacco cousins are not very happy with my work against the tobacco industry. The aluminum cousins are very supportive," he said.

He remembers the date clearly: July 10, 1986. Mr. Reynolds was seated next to the daughter of Yul Brynner (who died of lung cancer) at a U.S. Senate committee hearing, where he advocated a ban on all cigarette advertising.

Afterward, he was besieged by the media, invited to talk shows, urged to make speeches.

The Los Angeles resident and one-time actor -- he had bit parts in the movies "Airplane" and "Nashville" -- was soon traversing the nation, advocating city no-smoking ordinances and a ban on smoking on airline flights.

Today, most of his income is derived from his anti-smoking work. He charges an average of $3,000 per speech plus expenses. His appearance yesterday was financed by Kaiser-Permanente Medical Care Program.

Mr. Reynolds terms himself a moderate in the anti-smoking war and says he doesn't take a haughty please-do-not-smoke attitude toward strangers. Instead he advocates working within the system.

He supports a ban on cigarette advertising and higher taxes on cigarettes, noting that America has the lowest cigarette taxes of any industrialized country.

And he advocates prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to those under 21, urging tougher penalties for merchants who violate such a ban.

A measure pushed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer that would raise the penalties from $100 to $1,000 for merchants who sell tobacco products to minors failed in the state legislature this year after heavy lobbying by the tobacco industry.

Maryland ranks third in the nation in the number of cancer deaths, behind Washington, D.C., and Delaware. Each year about 9,000 people in the state die of cancer, according to the state health department. About 40 percent of those deaths are smoking-related, officials say.

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