Education

‘I could addict anybody.’ Whistle-blowing scientist warns students away from nicotine

Dr. Victor DeNoble knows a thing or two about addiction.

“We can addict people very quickly,” he said. “I could addict anybody with any drug I want in three months or less — most drugs in just a few weeks.”

Not that he would. The former researcher for tobacco giant Philip Morris hooks students with a presentation on nicotine that has them laughing at times, cringing at times, and learning all the while.

DeNoble is one of the most prominent anti-tobacco campaigners in the nation. Monday morning at Orestimba High, he kicked off a week of presentations at high schools around Stanislaus County. And the general public can hear his presentation, “Inside the Dark Side: The Biology of Addiction & the Dangers of Vaping,” on Thursday night in Modesto.

In the cafeteria at the Newman school, he guided kids through his work with Big Tobacco, which knew several decades back that nicotine contributes to cardiovascular risk. By 1980, the industry had figured out how to remove it from tobacco, but “the problem is, if you take nicotine out of tobacco, people don’t use tobacco,” DeNoble told the students. “It’s the nicotine in the brain that people get addicted to.

“My job was to find a substitute drug for nicotine, a man-made drug they could put in tobacco, a drug that would go to a person’s brain and keep them addicted, but a drug that wouldn’t cause heart attacks.”

He and his colleagues succeeded, but long story short, their higher-ups had a change of heart and quashed their work. DeNoble and fellow scientist Paul Mele were fired and, if they wanted a severance package, silenced. They were prohibited from voluntarily disclosing what their research showed about the addictive nature of nicotine.

Like a crook recounting a caper, DeNoble told the students how he and Mele made off with boxes of their research documents. How they entrusted them to a lawyer who double-crossed them and ended up selling the research back to the tobacco company. How he found in his garage a small amount of evidence that hadn’t been turned over to the lawyer. How, turning whistle-blower, he got that evidence to the FBI.

In 1994, while executives with the nation’s seven largest tobacco companies were testifying to Congress under oath that nicotine wasn’t addictive, that people use tobacco because nicotine tastes good, DeNoble said, he and his wife also were in Washington. The couple were held in a warehouse for several weeks under the protection of the Secret Service and the FBI. It then was his turn to testify.

“I would tell Congress under oath as a scientist, I would tell Congress under oath as a drug researcher, I would tell Congress under oath that I had scientific proof that nicotine changes the structure of the brain,” he said.

It’s a change that lasts far beyond a person’s use of the drug, DeNoble told the students, at one point carrying a slice of brain along the rows of cafeteria tables to give the kids a close look. It can take five to 10 years for an addicted brain to return to normal, he said.

E-cigarettes were rolled out as a healthier alternative to smoking tobacco, but that image has been shot down by research and by serious illness, even death, among people who vape. The CEO of Juul took the dramatic step of telling people that if they aren’t already addicted to nicotine, they shouldn’t use his company’s product.

DeNoble explained to the students that e-cigarettes use a lithium battery to heat a metal coil that vaporizes glycerin, delivering the vapor to the lungs and into the bloodstream. When the metal coil is heated, it ionizes, or breaks down, so users are ingesting much more than nicotine and flavors, he told the kids. They’re sucking in more than 50 ingredients, including cadmium, aluminum, copper, silver and formaldehyde.

The doctor made sure the students heard that smoking, vaping or using any drug ultimately boils down to their own choice. “If you and I became drug addicts, nobody gave us that drug; we gave it to ourselves. Nobody addicts you — drug addiction is something we do to ourselves.”

That’s not to say that the purveyors of tobacco and other addictive substances don’t target teens, because they absolutely do, DeNoble said.

“Your brain’s going to grow and develop until you’re 21 to 25 ...You guys process information in your brain two to four times faster now than you will later on in life. That’s really good for education but really bad for drug addiction. You guys get addicted two to four times faster. That’s why drug dealers and tobacco companies target you.”

DeNoble spoke later Monday at Central Valley High School in Ceres. He will speak Tuesday to students of Johansen, Patterson and Del Puerto high schools, Open Valley Independent Studies and the Petersen Alternative Center for Education.

Wednesday, DeNoble will speak at Argus and Hughson high schools and to residency students at Doctors Medical Center. Thursday’s presentations are at Pitman, Ceres and Roselawn Continuation high schools.

The doctors wraps up his visit Friday with talks at Downey and Enochs high schools and Elliott Alternative Education Center.

But before then, the general public is invited to his presentation, free of charge, on Thursday night. It will be from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Sutter Health Education and Conference Center, 1700 McHenry Ave., Suite 60B, Modesto. To register, go to https://tinyurl.com/denoble.

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