It has been said that the cost of freedom is constant vigilance, and it appears that is the cost of a smoke-free environment as well. While the incidence of teenage smoking dipped dramatically between 2000 to 2009, dropping from 28 percent to 17.2 percent of high school students who confessed to having smoked in the past 30 days, the rate of decline slowed to only a 2.6 percent decline between 2006 and 2009.
Eighty percent of U.S. adult smokers begin before the age of 18, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Sadly, Connecticut is among the states with the worst performance in curtailing youthful smoking. According to the Web site stateoftobaccocontrol.org, Connecticut gets an “F” for the amount of money it spends to fight smoking; a “C” for its smoke-free air laws; an “A” for its high tax on tobacco products and an “F” for its cessation efforts (helping people on Medicaid and state employees to quit smoking).
The state, which previously spent $6.1 million annually to fight smoking, reduced its budget this year to only $400,000, or 0.9 percent of the $43.9 million the CDC recommends, and only 0.1 percent of the estimated $529 million in tobacco-generated revenue the state collects each year from settlement payments and tobacco taxes. Those figures place Connecticut 45th out of 50 states in tobacco prevention efforts.
Connecticut’s tobacco settlement payments derived from the $206 billion master agreement between the four major tobacco companies and 46 states are folded into the general fund and are allocated through the budget process. In 2009, the Connecticut legislature changed the rules governing expenditure of funds from the Tobacco and Health Trust Fund (THTF) to allow it to spend up to 50 percent of the amount the legislature adds to the principal fund balance in that year, in addition to any interest that the fund accumulated. During the 2010 legislative session, the legislature redirected the $12 million in annual payments from the THTF to general revenue for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.
In addition, the legislature transferred $5 million from the fund to general revenue, leaving only $400,000 in the fund. Once allocated, this will leave the trust fund with a zero balance, endangering the future of tobacco prevention efforts in Connecticut.
“That is pathetic,” said Patrick Reynolds, a scion of the Reynolds tobacco empire who has waged a war on smoking. “Connecticut is spending minimal amounts on tobacco prevention despite the fact that the state is receiving more tobacco-generated revenue than ever before as a result of a $1 cigarette tax increase that brought Connecticut’s total tax to $3 a pack.
“For years we were making tremendous progress,” he continued, “but the rate has slowed, and I attribute that to the tremendous cuts states have made in tobacco abatement. As states have become more strapped, they have cut tobacco prevention programs.”
While he applauded Connecticut’s high tax, he urged the legislature to refocus on the area of prevention. “The state studies are in,” he said, “and there is a clear correlation: the states that spend more have a lower rate of teen smoking.”
Connecticut might not be in a position to fund the prevention programs this year, or even next, but Mr. Reynolds is not waiting. The founder of The Foundation for a Smokefree America, he is a frequent speaker at schools around the country, and will appear Tuesday at the Torrington High School and Gilbert School in Winsted. He will speak the following day at Kennedy High School and Wilby High School, both in Waterbury. His appearances are being sponsored by the Education Connection in Litchfield.
He is now in his 60s, and one might wonder how anyone, even someone who could be dubbed the Reynolds’ family renegade, could dissuade young people from an activity promoted so persistently as being “cool.” The answer, he said, is in the emotional connection he establishes with his youthful audience from the moment he opens his mouth.
“It’s theater. It’s very powerful,” said the former actor. “I start by telling them the story of how my parents divorced when I was 3, how I missed having my father in my life, and I ask if any of them are living in a home without their biological fathers. A quarter to half of the hands will go up.
“I say, ‘I don’t know how you feel about that, but I want you to get in touch with your feelings. I felt angry, a little sad.’ Any speaker who is effective connects with emotion. That’s why I have been able to get through to kids from economically distressed backgrounds, even though I come from a mega-wealthy family. We are bonded by the fact of no father in the house. When I have made an emotional bond, I teach them. I take a moment when they are open to say, ‘If I can give one lesson today, take away that smoking is addictive.’”
As the program progresses he talks about the power of advertising, showing pictures of the cartoon camel, “Joe Cool,” and cigarette packages adorned with images of rappers. He discusses the celebrities who glamorize smoking. “I tell them these stars are irresponsible role models who really don’t care about you. They are worried about their careers, they’re self-absorbed. And I tell them that if they hero-worship, they are giving all their power away to another person.”
At the end of his impassioned program, he “initiates” his listeners into adulthood. He said societies around the world seek to protect young children but then put them through painful initiation ceremonies when they are on the cusp of adulthood.
“The elders take the children out into the forest or desert and make them pretty uncomfortable,” he tells the young people. “They really make them feel some pain because until today you have been a child. We have tried to shield your eyes from the pain we know is coming. But I ask them, ‘How are you going to handle it when life hands you pain? Are you going to run off to a bar, smoke cigarettes or take drugs? Or are you going to stay with what is bothering you, sober as a judge, and connect with another person?’
“I close by acknowledging that kids are worried about the future. … I ask them how many are worried. If they do not have hope for a future, a child is prone to risky behaviors. Then I walk them through four points to motivate them and get them to believe in the future and to give them a reason to stay tobacco and drug free.”
He tells them to think positively, to talk to one another, to evaluate what real wealth is—a hint, it’s not about money—and to “develop a rock-solid faith that wonderful times are coming.”
Mr. Reynolds has lived by his own convictions for decades now, divesting himself early of his family’s involvement in the tobacco industry.
In his book, “The Gilded Leaf” published with Lakeville author Thomas Schactman, he chronicled three generations of his family and its tobacco business. He is the grandson of the tobacco company founder, R. J. Reynolds, and son of R.J. Reynolds Jr., a man he invited back into his life when he was 9 after a six-year absence. His father died five years later from emphysema at age 58, leaving a will that disinherited Patrick and his brothers. He received $500,000 from his father’s fourth wife in agreement not to contest the will, but inherited $2.5 million from his grandfather in 1969, when he was 21.
In April 1986, Mr. Reynolds, a Republican, met with Sen. Robert Packwood, where the issue of a proposed cut in tobacco tax was raised. Outraged, Mr. Reynolds stood up and asked why tobacco taxes were so low. By June 1986, he had become an anti-smoking activist, appearing in advertisements for the American Lung Association and testifying before a congressional subcommittee, to the dismay of his family.
“My grandfather founded the company 1875 and my father died from smoking when I was 15 or 16,” he said. “He began smoking cigarettespub.biz/camel, and moved on to www.cigarettespub.biz/winston—which didn’t turn out to be safer because they had a filter.”
Appalled that his father and older brother had died as a result of smoking, his attitude toward tobacco use hardened. “As a Reynolds, I have a great platform to make a difference on this issue,” he said. “I have made it my life’s work to prevent teen smoking and to empower smokers to stop.”
He admits there was a “certain chill in air for a long while” with his family once he started his crusade. “Before I began speaking publicly, I went to see my brothers. They were worried the stock would go down and that I would be an embarrassment to the family if I spoke out,” he said. “I spoke out, but the stock went up.”
He adds that he had sold his stock in the company long before he became an advocate because “I wasn’t comfortable holding stock in a company that was selling addiction and death.”
In 1989, he founded The Foundation for a Smokefree America. In October 2010, he released an educational video for grades 6 through 12, “The Truth About Tobacco.” It addresses cigarette advertising, smoking in films, and the addictiveness of nicotine. “The video is next best thing to one of my programs,” he said.
‘It’s theater. It’s very powerful,’
By KATHRYN BOUGHTON