Reynolds Scion Tells Kids the Truth about Tobacco
Smoking was the primary cause of death for most of the elders in my family. Chances are it figures prominently in your own family, too. Today, we know much more about the dangers of smoking than our parents did. Our schools work hard to warn kids not to smoke. As parents, we tell our kids it’s unhealthy, dangerous, unattractive, expensive, foolish … Yet teens are still taking up the habit. Why?
Patrick Reynolds may have the answer. His talks with young people are powerful and persuasive, and he reaches their hearts as well as their minds. — Publisher
The junior high auditorium is filled to capacity, yet the crowd is hushed. Students sit at rapt attention, uncharacteristically still. Tears glisten on their youthful cheeks, and even the tough guys listen quietly. On the stage, a few minutes earlier, Patrick Reynolds opened his talk with a promise, “Today, we’re going to get in touch with our feelings.”
Ordinarily, a tough junior high kid might rebel at such a statement. But not today — and not when Reynolds speaks it.
“I open all my talks — both to youth and adults,” he says, “with memories of my father dying from smoking, watching my dad gasp for breath.” Reynolds’ father was the son of tobacco tycoon, R. J. Reynolds, for whom the company was named.
“I say to the children, ‘How many of you don’t have your biological father living in the house with you?’ And I see half of the hands go up in community after community.
“Right at the opening of my talk,” says Reynolds, “I engage them and grab them by the heart. ‘How do you feel about not having your dad around? Are you angry? Are you sad? Are you a little afraid? I was all three of those things. And today we’re going to get in touch with our hearts, in touch with our feelings, as we move through this talk about the tobacco industry.’ ”
Marketing to Kids
As he speaks to the students, Reynolds, who is the founder and executive director of the Foundation for a Smokefree America, shows photographs of rappers and DJs on the cover of a package of Kool cigarettes and in advertisements glorifying smoking. He teaches the kids to see the marketing behind enticing offers that are designed to lure them into tobacco addiction.
“ ‘Here’s a promotion offering a free stick radio when customers buy two packs of Kools,” he says, showing the advertisement to the students. In a deliberate imitation of a sideshow barker, he adds, “ ‘Hey, Kids, buy two packs of Kools, and get a free stick radio!’ ”
Then he changes his voice to mimic the marketing team: “ ‘Hey, Joe, are two packs enough to get them hooked? Maybe we should give them three?’
“ ‘No, three’s too expensive,’ ” he answers, mimicking another marketer’s voice.
“So, I ask the kids, ‘How do you feel about that?’
“Some kid will yell out, ‘Angry!’
“And I’ll go, ‘Right on! That’s healthy. Anger doesn’t have to be a temper tantrum. It can be a mild expression of I’m kinda angry about that. You don’t have to blow your top. It’s appropriate, healthy, and good to talk about what you’re angry about, and let your feelings be known and be heard.’ ”
Freedom of Speech
“When I talk to kids, they ask, ‘Mr. Reynolds, why don’t they make tobacco advertising illegal?’
“And I tell them, ‘The very first change our founding fathers decided to make to the Constitution was to pass the First Amendment, which provided for …’
“Some of them will yell out, ‘Freedom of speech!’
“Then I climb up on a chair on the stage, saying, ‘I can stand here and tell you, The sky is purple and the clouds are green. But if I lie to you, or get the facts wrong, the beauty of our market system is that the market will quickly sweep Patrick Reynolds aside, and I won’t be invited to speak at other schools. But I have that right, as long as I do not endanger anyone.
“ ‘Sadly, freedom of speech protects tobacco advertisers, too.’ I explain that to the kids in a nice way, adding, ‘But a $13 billion ad campaign in 2009 by an industry like Big Tobacco is quite a different form of speech than a guy who gets up on a box and says, The sky is falling.
“ ‘Private speech and corporate speech are quite different animals. So is political speech. At some point, I hope that the courts are going to make a distinction between them, but for now, they don’t. I also hope when that happens, Congress will provide for oversight, or watch-dogging, of what these groups say.
“ ‘One day,’ I tell the students, ‘we’re going to have far-thinking justices in the courts, who will make a distinction between multi-billion-dollar corporate ad campaigns and private speech. But for now, tobacco advertising is still protected under our First Amendment.’
“After that, I show them pictures of some of the most egregious tobacco ads: special-edition KOOL packages with rappers, hiphop artists, DJs, and a youth party going on, right on the outer package.”
Sharing a Story
Following the ads, Reynolds tells the moving story of Sean Marsee, a young man not much older than the kids themselves. Marsee died at age 19 from mouth cancer caused by chewing tobacco.
“That’s the single most powerful part of my talk — telling that story,” says Reynolds. “You can see that video clip on YouTube; just search the name Sean Marsee. It has 47,000 views to date, mostly by teens.
“As I begin the story, I’ll say, ‘Thousands of years ago, they didn’t have TV or radio, but they told stories around campfires. So now I’m going to tell you a story.’ Here, I think I’ve got them at the cellular level, because they love stories; it’s an ancient tradition.
“You can hear the whole room hush. I’ve had some tough audiences around the country with teenagers who are not disciplined. Some of the kids in the public school system are pretty tough. But during this part of the talk, you can always hear a pin drop.
“I tell them the story of a boy who started using dip tobacco, then move them through how he became a track star and later died of cancer. It’s a five- or six-minute piece. I’ll show the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures as I tell the story.”
The photos of Marsee are chilling. Once an attractive teen, cancer ate through the lower part of his face, where he had held chewing tobacco in his lip. It destroyed part of his nose and neck, too. The “after” photo shows some swelling around his jaw, part of which had been recently removed.
For kids, this graphic depiction of tobacco’s disfiguring toll on a young, healthy body is more powerful than any words of warning an adult might give.
But Reynolds doesn’t end his talk by scaring kids about the dangers of tobacco.
Initiation into Life
“I’ll tell students, ‘Thousands of years ago, in every tribe, on every continent, the elders would take the young people out into the forest or the desert and initiate them into life.’ I don’t use cutting or wounding examples, because there’s too much tattooing and piercing going on — it’s almost as if kids today want to be initiated.
“ ‘They would throw obstacles in the kids’ path and introduce pain into their lives. They would deprive the young people of food and sleep. This would go on sometimes for several days, even a week.’
“Then I ask, ‘Why did they do this to their kids?’
“And I say, ‘I think the elders were saying, Look, until today, you’ve been a child. We adults have tried to shield your eyes from the pain and the hardship in this world. But today, we’re going to introduce you to the world of adults as you ritually leave the world of childhood. Today, you become an adult.’
“Then I say, ‘I will initiate you now, but don’t get nervous. I’m not going to make your life difficult or painful. What I am going to do is give you the core essence of what the elders were doing.
“ ‘All of us adults have pain in our lives, and you will, too. One day, a grandparent may die, hopefully not until you’re in your 50s. Even when you’re in your 50s, it hurts. It hurts us adults.
“ ‘And when painful moments come, what do the uninitiated adults out there do? They don’t want to feel their pain, so they go to a bar and drink. Or they take drugs and destroy their lives. Maybe they light a cigarette and watch the smoke curling in the air, because it gets their mind off their troubles. Or they overeat, sit on the couch and watch endless television, get lost in video games, or turn their music up loud — just so they don’t have to feel their feelings.
“ ‘The core message of my initiation is this: When life throws you a difficult moment — and it will — stay with the difficult moment. Don’t run away from it with food or alcohol or tobacco or drugs or music. Stay with it.
“ ‘Welcome now, a little closer to the world of adults. You are initiated.’
A Rise in Teen Smoking
“It hit me a few years ago that a lot of kids today are worried about the future. I was saying this back in 1998, when I first recorded my educational video — well before 9/11.
“I came across some landmark studies done in the early 1990s by CocaCola for OK Soda — a brand they never launched — that indicated kids were worried about the future and had a ‘keen sense of diminished expectations.’ They didn’t think the future held much for them, and almost half didn’t think they were going to live very long.
“Then from 1988 to 1998, there was a stunning 73 percent increase in smoking among teens. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a lot of the bigwigs in tobacco control attributed that to a corresponding increase of smoking in movies during those years. I cover that in my talk and empower kids to have their eyes open about movie stars who smoke.
“The CDC also attributed the rise in smoking to advertisements targeting kids — especially the Joe Camel cartoon advertisements and the Marlboro man. And I tell them that the tobacco industry’s own, internal memos confirm that they were specifically targeting kids.
“But I believe there was a third factor, which was less visible and more simple: the lack of faith that our kids have in the future,” Reynolds adds.
“After 9/11, the smoking rate among kids in New York City went up, even though it was trending downward nationally. If a child doesn’t believe there will be a future, it stands to reason that they may be more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors, like smoking, drugs, alcohol, and unsafe sex. They think, There’s no future anyway, what the heck?
Catch My Faith in the Future
“So I began to include a new section at the end of my talk, aimed at motivating students to believe in the future.
“I walk them through four points:
” ‘Think positive, and talk about your negative feelings to others — a trusted teacher, the school counselor, your parents, and friends.
” ‘Connect with others, and don’t isolate, or go it alone.
” ‘Reevaluate what real wealth is — money is not the only measure of wealth. What’s even more important is the love we get at home, and our friends, and connecting with nature. If you listen to TV ads telling you that you’ve gotta have this one product to be happy, you’ll be unhappy, living in a state of always wanting more. The wealthiest person I know simply understands that they have enough, right here, right now, today.’
“Lastly, I say to the kids, ‘Catch my faith that no matter what happens, there are wondrous times coming in the future. If you’re worried about swine flu, SARS, AIDS, bird flu and other diseases, together we are going to find vaccines and cures for those; you will see! If you’re frightened about the economy, it will come back around; it always has in the past, and it always will in the future.
“’Together, we will find the solution to global warming and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we have a terrorist attack at home, we’ll get through it together. And one day, we’ll have world peace, I promise you. There are incredible times coming, in your lifetime – so hold onto your health, and don’t smoke, don’t use drugs, and don’t drink. You’ll need your precious health in the incredible years ahead of us.”
“Every great speech closes with a promise and engages the audience emotionally. So, I close with this promise: ‘One day, we’re going to have a society free of smoking and tobacco, and it’s coming because of you.’ ”
Spreading the Message
“My clients are often hospitals looking for an effective outreach into the community,” Reynolds says. “As the grandson of R.J. Reynolds against smoking, I’m a media draw and often get good local press coverage, sometimes national coverage.
“I love speaking to kids. So, rather than give a talk just to adults, I’ll say, ‘For the same speaking fee, I’ll give you two talks to youth. To incentivize you to get me in front of youth, I will throw in a free 20-minute talk to adults at a luncheon or community dinner and do Q and A afterward.’
“I go the distance in order to get in front of kids. I’d rather be in front of 500 to 1,000 youth in a school than in front of 30 or 40 community members.
“When I do speak to adults,” he adds, “I compare tobacco taxes in their state to the rest of the country. I talk about their no-smoking law and what their state is spending on tobacco cessation compared to the rest of the country. I talk about the bill Congress passed in 2009, which finally gave us FDA regulation of tobacco.
“And I speak about Obama signing the S-Chip Bill, with its 61-cent cigarette tax hike, within two weeks of taking office.
“Whether it’s youth or adults, I always close with the promise of the coming tobacco-free society.”
Note: Reynolds speaks with teens — and adults — worldwide. To engage Reynolds as a speaker in your community, visit TobaccoFree.org or call Lupe Lopez at 800.541.7741. Hospital Marketing Directors often pay the full cost, as a community outreach for their hospital.
Reynolds’ group also offers a bestselling educational video of his talk to teens. The Truth About Tobacco received rave reviews, and has been purchased by over 10,000 middle schools, high schools and health departments around the US and internationally.
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