A secret laboratory, a brain-altering drug that is sold legally in the United States, and a phone call from the president.
Sound like the makings of a science-fiction movie? This was reality for Dr. Victor DeNoble.
At a presentation last Thursday, titled "Inside the Dark Side," DeNoble told his story as a former scientist for a major tobacco company. The audience included a group of teens and adults at Memorial Medical Center/Sutter Health Education and Conference Center in Modesto.
DeNoble explained that he worked in a secret lab to produce a cigarette that would tremendously reduce the risks of smoking. He also studied nicotine addiction until his lab was shut down and he was fired because of the potential liability and lost profits that could result from his research.
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He told the dramatic story of how he later went on to be released from his secrecy agreement with his former employer after a personal phone call and an executive order by President Clinton.
He went on to work with the FBI, and his testimony before Congress has helped to change the way tobacco can be advertised or used in the United States.
After telling his story, DeNoble discussed addiction to alcohol and illegal drugs, as well. He included slides from the secret lab and showed a monkey brain he once experimented on.
He even brought along half of a brain from a patient whose brain had been affected by nicotine, even though the person had not smoked in years. He sprinted around the room showing the brains to anyone who wanted to look as he discussed how drugs alter or destroy brain cells.
At one point, a teen attending the lecture asked whether it was true that marijuana did not destroy brain cells.
DeNoble explained: "I'm not going to lie to you. It does not. However, (marijuana) can alter brain cells to the extent that it can have the same effect as destroying them."
DeNoble also explained the rationale for making the age for drinking alcohol 21 rather than 18. He claimed it is not because people become more responsible at age 21. Rather, he said that until age 21, the balance of certain chemicals in the brain can lead to alcohol addiction.
He said you are "unlikely to become addicted to alcohol if you wait until age 21" to take a drink because the chemical balance that responds to alcohol changes around that age.
DeNoble captured the attention of his audience with humor and by explaining the functions of the brain in ways that would be understandable to the average person.
Students from Ceres High School heard about DeNoble's presentation from their chemistry teacher, who offered extra credit to those attending. Angie Prak, Melissa Webster and Tiffany Maksoud were glad to earn some extra credit while listening to what they called "a really cool speaker." They thought the best part of the lecture was learning about "drug facts and how addiction starts."
Students Sha'Nae Williams and Abraham Parra, who attend Valley Charter High School in Modesto, said they went to the lecture to earn extra credit in their health classes. Both agreed that they enjoyed the presentation. Parra also said he found it helpful because he had "seen a lot of things happen to people" and wanted to prevent them from happening to himself.
DeNoble was brought to the area by Stanislaus County Office of Education Prevention Programs and the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency along with their youth coalition called Protecting Health and Slamming Tobacco. He spoke earlier in the week to many high schools in the area, including Pitman, Denair, Orestimba, Turlock, Central Valley, Hughson and Waterford.
Katie Mussman is a senior at Davis High School and a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom journalism program.