Students at J.T. Reddick School heard from Patrick Reynolds, the grandson of tobacco company founder R.J. Reynolds, Tuesday morning about the dangers of tobacco use.
Reynolds is an outspoken opponent of Big Tobacco. He is also executive director of the nonprofit, The Foundation for a Smokefree America, which he founded in 1989. Its mission is to motivate youth to stay tobacco free and to empower smokers to quit successfully.
Reynolds watched his father, R.J. Reynolds Jr., his oldest brother, R.J. Reynolds III, and other members of his family die from cigarette-induced emphysema and lung cancer. Concerned about the mounting health evidence, he made the decision to speak out against the industry his family helped build. He has spoken to well over 100,000 students live and over million have seen his educational video, “The Truth About Tobacco” — the 2011 edition is available at www.tobaccofree.org.
J.T. Reddick student Haley Alexander, student council president, introduced Reynolds to the crowd. During his presentation, Reynolds talked about his parents getting divorced when he was three years old. He said he was not ready to see his father again until six years later, when he was nine.
He asked the room full of students seated on the gymnasium floor if any of them had to go home without a biological father being there.
“I wondered where my father was,” he said.
He said children need a father around to say, “I love you” and offer words of encouragement and love. Without his father around, Reynolds said he felt sad and sometimes afraid.
Reynolds said when he was nine years old, he wrote his father a letter, which was forwarded seven times. When he finally had the opportunity to meet him in person, he found his father lying down, frail and sick. He said his father told him he had asthma, but it really turned out to be emphysema. His father died when Reynolds was 15 years old.
“You find your calling where you’ve been hurt the most deeply — I lost my father to smoking,” he said. “That’s where I found my calling. I’ll do this for the rest of my life.”
Reynolds also warned about second-hand smoke. With a screen projected behind him as he spoke, he showed the students several tobacco and cigarette advertisements, some featuring celebrities, that are made to appeal to young people. He said this is unethical, but it’s freedom of speech. He said the creators of the ads have to find ways to get people to buy.
He added, “Smoking in movies is a betrayal to our kids. (Celebrities who do) are not your friends.”
Reynolds showed them videos against tobacco use as well, including an ad that he did. He said the national average cigarette tax is $1.39 per pack when it’s only 37 cents per pack in Georgia.
“(Georgia) won’t raise it. Not all taxes are bad; the tobacco tax is good,” he said. “If I could leave you with just one thing today — cigarettes are addictive. Once you start, you cannot stop.”
Reynolds said one out of four 11-13 year olds get hooked on tobacco. He said it takes on average 17 years for a young person to stop smoking successfully.
He told the students, “Don’t let it happen to you. Smoking is on its way out. It’s so 20th century.”
He said, “You can kiss your entire future good-bye with drugs. It starts with cigarettes.”
Reynolds said six out of 10 smokers start by age 14, and nine out of every 10 smokers get addicted before reaching age 19, and suggested talking to a school counselor and connecting with other positive people.
“You’ll succeed so much in life,” he said.
Reynolds also said calling someone a fool for smoking is not effective; however, he said telling someone how you feel is.
As photos of baseball players showed on-screen behind him, he faced the students and said, “Chewing tobacco is just as addictive as smoking.” He then showed some shocking photos of the results of chewing tobacco, such as people with part of their jaw removed, etc.
Reynolds concluded his speech by telling a story about a young man named Sean Marsee who died at the age of 19 after becoming addicted to dipping tobacco. He showed a photo of Marsee and said he was a great track athlete, winning several high school medals. One day, Reynolds said, Marsee’s mother saw that he was using tobacco. After his mother advised she hoped he would make a responsible decision about tobacco use, Marsee tried seeing the school counselor but couldn’t quit.
“It kills 40 percent of people who use it eventually,” Reynolds said.
He said Marsee found out that he had cancer and had to have his tongue cut out, part of his jaw removed and other surgeries after the cancer began to spread. Before he died, Marsee’s message to others were: “Don’t dip snuff.”
Reynolds advised the students to have a solid faith, hold on to their health and don’t smoke and don’t do drugs.
“Stay smoke-free. Stay drug-free,” he said. “I believe in you.”
Also, an anti-tobacco poster contest was held at J.T. Reddick. Carlos Romo, 12, was the winner. He won a pizza party for his homeroom class.
Reynolds also spoke to students at Ben Hill Middle School in Fitzgerald Tuesday afternoon. Returning to Tifton, he spoke that night at the University of Georgia Tifton Campus Conference Center as well. Reynolds gave a free community lecture entitled “Tobacco Wars: The Battle for a Smokefree Society.” Tift Regional Medical Center and the TRMC Foundation sponsored these events. Someone with the foundation said by inviting Reynolds, they’re keeping with TRMC’s mission for a healthy community.
Today is Kick Butts Day, which is an annual celebration of youth leadership and activism in the fight against tobacco use, when youth across the country encourage their peers to stay tobacco-free and educate their communities about the dangers of tobacco.
To contact reporter Latasha Everson, call 382-4321.