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Fighting the Giant : As scion of the wealthy tobacco clan, Patrick Reynolds could have had a life of ease. But when his family of smokers began to die, he had to take a stand.

August 10, 1994|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Patrick Reynolds, tobacco heir, easily explains himself: "I fight the tobacco industry. That is who I am, and what I do."

At a Town Hall lecture last Thursday night, Reynolds, 45, proves he has few peers in his chosen role of biting the hand that used to feed him.

Casually, as if among friends, Reynolds straightens the jacket of his pearl gray suit, stands before 100 members of the prestigious current affairs group, and quietly starts to reminisce:

"My parents divorced when I was 3. I didn't see my father again. At 9, I was so desperate for his hugs and love that I wrote him a letter: 'Dear Dad, Where are you? I want to meet you. Your loving son, Patrick.' "

The letter reached R.J. Reynolds Jr. on a yacht in the South Seas. The father eventually sent for his son.

Patrick flew in one of his father's private planes to an island estate off the coast of Georgia, where he was ushered into a darkened room. There, his father lay flat in bed, gasping for breath.

Richard Joshua Reynolds Jr., son and namesake of the founder of the great tobacco firm, was suffering from emphysema--the result of a life spent smoking the Camels and Winstons on which the family fortune was made.

Reynolds died slowly and painfully six years later, when Patrick was 15. In the interim, there were a few more visits, of increasingly shorter duration.

Since then, Patrick has lost four more close relatives from smoking-related causes. His half-brother R.J. Reynolds III--Joshua--whom Patrick called a "good buddy," died June 28 in North Carolina of emphysema and heart failure. He was a heavy smoker of Winstons, Patrick told friends at a small memorial service he conducted in Santa Monica.

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Reynolds has told his story repeatedly at universities, health groups, youth groups and corporate meetings around the country--lectures for which his average fee is $3,000.

Immediately after last Thursday's talk, for example, he flew to address 10,000 teen-agers in Denver at an annual Seventh-Day Adventist gathering.

He's a compelling speaker, partly because each time he talks the anguish is so apparent and sincere.

And partly because he is, after all, a Reynolds--scion of one of America's great fortune-building clans. His patrician profile, blond good looks--the elegant, soft-voiced, delivery of a tale that could be straight out of "Dallas" or "Dynasty"--are the stuff to make audiences gaze in wonder at what this man's gilded, turbulent life must be like.

That's when Reynolds zaps them with reality. One out of every five deaths in the United States is due to smoking. It causes more deaths annually than cocaine, alcohol, heroin, fire, suicide, homicide, AIDS and auto accidents combined. It is the single most preventable cause of death, disease and addiction in our era, and tobacco is the only product sold legally in the world that has a harmful effect when used as intended. The direct medical cost for each pack of cigarettes smoked is about $2, he says.

His information is from the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Assn. and studies by various government and prestigious private institutions. The statistics he quotes are not even controversial, says Joseph Cherner of Smoke-Free Educational Services, a New York-based volunteer group. Yet our elected officials refuse to do much about stopping the plague, he says. Reynolds wants action. For starters, he'd like higher cigarette taxes, a ban on cigarette ads, and prohibition of the sale of cigarettes to people under 21.

"Sixty percent of all smokers start by age 14. Ninety percent are addicted by age 19," he tells the group, citing figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Why the apathy, he asks? It's easy to blame only the tobacco industry, he says. But he believes that there are even more dastardly culprits.

They are the elected officials who accept hefty campaign contributions from the tobacco lobby--funds that give them a tremendous financial advantage over challengers at election time. Reynolds believes these officials won't ever vote willingly against tobacco interests because they would lose the contributions the industry provides.

It's as ugly and simple as that, Reynolds says. And he's trying to gather citizens on his side to help stop it.

The tobacco industry is not amused. DeeDee Whitt, representative for R.J. Reynolds, says: "Adults don't want to be told what to do, but Patrick wants to tell them anyway." Thomas Lauria, spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, says the lobbying group "declines comment on Mr. Reynolds' activities."

Rep. Scotty Baesler (D-Ky.), who debated Reynolds on "Night-line" last week, says, "I represent the farmers out in the fields. Tobacco provides 60% of their income in our state. That can't be changed or eliminated without great hardship--something Reynolds mightn't understand."

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