Anti-smoking advocate visits Milton for powerful presentation

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MILTON - Patrick Reynolds, grandson of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, has devoted his life to anti-smoking efforts at great personal risk.

Railing against his family’s wishes, he divested all of his stock in big tobacco in 1979 and has given half of his inheritance to fighting the dangers of cigarettes and chewing tobacco. He’s used the rest of the money to fuel the Los Angeles-based Foundation for a Smokefree America, a non-profit organization he started in 1989 after speaking out to Congress about the dangers of smoking.

But what would cause a man to bite so hard the hand that feeds him?

Patrick’s father, R.J. Reynolds Jr., died in 1964 of emphysema when his son was just 15.

“The only memories I have of my father are a man dying of smoking,” he said.

So, he said, it’s of utmost importance to him to empower teenagers to make the right choices about tobacco by exposing them to the industry’s marketing tools. In addition, the foundation provides a host of information on how stop using tobacco products.

As part of his mission, Reynolds was at Milton High School Nov. 19 on the eve of “The Great American Smokeout,” an advocacy day aimed at ending smoking in America. There, at the behest of the PTSA, he gave his powerful anti-smoking presentation to 1,300 ninth- and 10th-graders, which ends with letting kids in on a little secret: Adults often smoke, drink and use drugs to escape the pain of what can sometimes be a harsh world.

“I tell them to face their pain, to talk to others about it,” he said. “The future is looking incredible, and we’ll get through all of this together.”

It’s a life lesson duly learned, said Reynolds.

The partial heir to one of the largest and most vilified industries in America said he certainly wasn’t thinking about helping to stop smoking nationwide when he traveled to Washington, D.C. with a friend in 1986. But things just sort of “fell into place,” he said.

It was while speaking with then U.S. Sen. Robert Packwood, who was working on tax reform, that Reynolds brought up the idea of taxing cigarettes heavily. Packwood asked if Reynolds would testify to Congress to help pass the measure, and that got the ball rolling.

A Reynolds family member hadn’t served in a position of power in the company for 50-odd years, said Reynolds, and so he wasn’t prepared for what he was up against.

“I went home to L.A. and contacted the American Lung Association,” he said. “The more I learned about Big Tobacco, the angrier I got.

“When I did speak out, I was catapulted into the headlines,” he said. “It was the first public speaking out against the tobacco companies from someone like me. I mean, I was a Reynolds.”

Reynolds was “besieged” with requests for speaking engagements and began to become more involved with local ballot initiatives across the country to ban smoking in public places and raise cigarette taxes.

The deeper he got in, the more resolve he garnered, he said.

“A lot of people find their life’s calling in their deepest wound,” he said.

And now, after taking his message to more than 150,000 students and producing a video bought by more than 10,000 schools, Reynolds said he understands what he was meant to do.

“I get to make a difference,” he said.