By ASHLEY AMASON
You may not know the name Dr. Victor DeNoble, but you will, and you already know his story. In fact, the movie “The Insider,” starring Russell Crowe, was based on DeNoble, but he calls the film “total bogus.”
Speaking to Walton High School students and in a presentation at the Walton County Health Department last Wednesday, DeNoble told the true story of being the inside whistleblower on big tobacco companies.
In 1980, DeNoble worked for Phillip Morris as an associate senior scientist in the behavioral research department. It was his job to create a drug which would retain nicotine’s addictive qualities (keep the brain addicted), but would not cause heart problems.
In his research, he realized nicotine actually changes the cellular structure of the brain. In a lab experiment using rats, a rat would step on a pedal to receive injections of nicotine into the blood stream which travelled to the lungs, the heart, and the brain. The nicotine was released in ten small doses (or puffs), which were proportional to a “rat-sized cigarette.” Within weeks the rats were up to 90 cigarettes per day.
When DeNoble took the information that nicotine changes brain cells to Phillip Morris executives, he was told it could not be proven and to cease brain research.
Faced with the challenge that his research could not be proven, DeNoble decided to inject nicotine directly into the rats’ brains. Initially, the nicotine left the rats paralyzed for approximately 15 minutes. DeNoble continued the injections daily, and by day 15 the rats were no longer paralyzed. Their brains had adjusted because the chemical dopamine was altered.
DeNoble took his findings to the executives, who again told him to cease brain research and focus only on creating a drug which would addict the brain but not harm the heart. Phillip Morris execs were so angry about DeNoble’s brain research, they removed all of the rats from his laboratory.
Of course, that did not stop DeNoble. He received a phone call that Sarah, a lab monkey who was used for nicotine and other addiction experiments, had died. A true scientist, he had Sarah frozen and shipped to him, where he autopsied her brain and discovered her brain cells were altered, even though no nicotine remained in her system.
Going one step further, DeNoble met a dying lung cancer patient who had not smoked in two years. He asked if, upon the man’s death, he could have his brain for research, to which the man replied, “you’re weird.”
DeNoble said, “I know. Can I have your brain?”
When the man died, his wife called DeNoble and said he could have the brain. Upon removing the brain, DeNoble found exactly what he expected, that although there was no nicotine in the man’s system for two years, his brain cells were still changed.
This semi-permanent alteration of the brain cells (it can sometimes be resolved within 5-10 years) is the reason smokers who quit say they wake up every day wanting a cigarette.
After autopsying the man’s brain, in 1982, DeNoble again presented Phillip Morris with his discovery. Immediately they told him he was fired. “No, I’m not,” he said.
When asked why he thought he was not fired, he told the executives he had created the drug that would still addict the brain, but not damage the heart. This man-made drug used a filter that removed 80 percent of the cancer-causing agents. DeNoble is the only person to have ever seen the “safe-cigarette.”
On Apr. 5, 1984, Phillip Morris told DeNoble they were not going to make the safe cigarette because it would save lives. Confused, DeNoble asked, “Excuse me?” The tobacco company explained that since 1953, it had proclaimed to Congress and the American public there is nothing unsafe about smoking a cigarette. By producing DeNoble’s safe cigarette, it would reveal they lied. Additionally, if the safe cigarette indeed saved lives, the tobacco companies would have to pull their other brands, costing them billions.
With this revelation, DeNoble and his partner were fired and reminded of the agreement they signed upon accepting their positions, which said they could never volunteer any damaging information they found during research. When DeNoble’s partner asked what they were going to do, with a smile, he said “we’re going to steal top-secret documents.”
In a nervous fury, DeNoble loaded every top-secret document he could find into boxes, and at one point was so nervous he pulled a desk drawer off its hinges. Not having time to fix it, he threw the drawer in the boxes as well, loaded it all in the van his partner drove, and sped away.
DeNoble stored the boxes in his garage, then contacted an attorney, told him the story, and delivered them to him. Two weeks later the attorney called to say the boxes had been stolen. Ten years later, in 1994, DeNoble found out the attorney sold the documents back to Phillip Morris.
After ten years, DeNoble and his partner had both resigned the idea of exposing the tobacco companies, when DeNoble’s wife asked what he would do if he could prove he had a secret laboratory at Phillip Morris where he performed brain studies. He told her, “I’d call the FBI.” She replied, “Get them on the phone.”
DeNoble’s wife, Kimi, had looked through the boxes ten years earlier and found the broken desk drawer. She saw items in the bottom of the drawer she thought her husband would want to keep: pictures of the rat experiments. She took them out of the boxes before he delivered them to the attorney and found them 10 years later.
Because he could not violate his agreement and volunteer damaging information, DeNoble left his home state, Delaware, traveled to New Jersey and mailed a single picture of one of his lab rats to the FBI, with no return address. That was on Monday. Thursday the FBI was at his house.
DeNoble was taken before a federal court judge and pledged an oath to tell the truth. After doing so, he asked the judge what being under oath meant. Confused and insulted, the judge asked how he could pledge something he did not understand. Still, DeNoble asked the judge to clarify “under oath.” The judge explained that he had to tell the truth about his research. In one short sentence, the judge pardoned DeNoble’s prior contract with Phillip Morris. He was no longer volunteering information, he was being ordered by a federal court judge to reveal it.
In 1994, he was released from his confidentiality agreement with Phillip Morris by the 104th Congress. DeNoble became the first whistleblower to testify against big tobacco companies. However, his task was not a coveted one. In fact, his position left him and his wife in serious danger.
President Bill Clinton himself called DeNoble at home and told him to go outside where Secret Service agents would take him and his wife into protective custody. They were secretly held in warehouses in Washington D.C. until DeNoble testified to his findings in front of Congress, Al Gore’s Tobacco Settlement Committee, and the Food and Drug Administration.
DeNoble’s testimony resulted in $740 billion in fines to tobacco companies, as well as the restriction of their youth-targeted advertisements and banning of television advertisements.
When asked if he received a negative reaction for his animal experiments, DeNoble said, “We had to use animals because we didn’t have computers back then.” We have such intelligent computer programs now, he explained, because animal research was done then. “Science is not a revolution,” he says, “It is an evolution.”
Charlie Evans, producer of “The Aviator” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, will depict DeNoble’s story in an upcoming biographical film titled “Addiction Incorporated,” due to be released within the next two years.
DeNoble now travels the country, sharing his story with students. His wife, Kimi, remains in San Diego performing cancer research, but he says with a smile, “The day she retires, I’m done.”