TURLOCK -- Sixteen years ago, Victor DeNoble testified before Congress about the addictive qualities of nicotine and how his research was suppressed by the tobacco industry.
These days, the scientist travels the country telling students about the harmful effects of cigarettes and other tobacco products. He delivered the message Monday to 400 students attending two assemblies at Pitman High School.
The former whistle-blower will speak at Turlock High School on Friday as well as schools in San Joaquin County this week as part of the Kaiser Permanente "Don't Buy The Lie" anti-smoking program. Kaiser has run the program in Sacramento-area schools for 17 years and extended the campaign to the Northern San Joaquin Valley this year.
DeNoble, a former researcher for Philip Morris, said federal officials were holding him in protective custody in 1994, when seven tobacco industry executives told a congressional committee that cigarettes were not harmful to the millions of smokers in the United States.
"I would tell Congress that nicotine changes the structure of this," DeNoble told the Pitman students, holding up a small jar containing the brain of a lab rat.
He made the students squirm by giving them a close-up look at the rat brain, a monkey brain and human brain, all of which showed the effects of repeated exposure to nicotine, he said.
As with all addictive drugs, nicotine changes the function of the brain's dopamine system, DeNoble said. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of contentment and is associated with addiction.
DeNoble, a behavioral pharmacologist, was researching drug addiction at the University of Minnesota in 1979 when cigarette maker Philip Morris offered him a job. According to DeNoble, company officials told him their products killed 138,000 people a year, and they wanted him to develop a drug to replace nicotine in cigarettes.
Besides being addictive, nicotine has been shown to have adverse effects on the cardiovascular system.
Assigned to a research lab in Richmond, Va., DeNoble and a colleague conducted nicotine studies with lab animals and were involved in developing a safer cigarette for Philip Morris. However, DeNoble said, company officials declined to use the nicotine substitute because it would look like an admission tobacco products had harmed smokers for decades.
Philip Morris fired DeNoble in 1984 and prevented him from publishing his research. A secrecy agreement he had signed kept him quiet for 10 years, but he became the first tobacco- industry whistle-blower to testify before Congress in the 1990s.
These days, he travels to many states giving his "Inside the Dark Side" talks to students.
A Philip Morris spokesman said Monday that it had no comment on the content of DeNoble's presentations.
DeNoble told the Pitman students that the developing brains of young people are sensitive to addictive drugs such as nicotine. Despite limits on tobacco advertising, the industry targets young people with colorful ads in magazines and has no way of excluding minors from Internet chat rooms for smokers, he said.
Caleb Porter, a Pitman sophomore, said Monday's assembly was fascinating.
"He has a very interesting story, sort of like an epic movie," he said, adding that smoking is not for him. "I have no desire to try it."
The "Don't Buy The Lie" program includes a contest in which high school students design posters with anti-smoking messages. The grand prize winner gets a $1,000 gift card and his or her anti-smoking message put on billboards in the Central Valley. Runners-up receive $50 gift cards.
Billboard contest entry forms are being distributed at participating high schools and are available at www.kpdontbuythelie.org.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2321.