Ex-tobacco scientist speaks at Piñon Hills
October 5, 2007
MINDEN – Students of Piñon Hills Elementary School expressed both wonder and disgust when Victor DeNoble walked around showing them a piece of a human brain.
“It looks pretty cool but kind of disgusting,” said fourth-grader Timothy Cadaret at the presentation.
DeNoble, a former tobacco scientist for Philip Morris, said he approached a 63-year-old hospital patient dying of lung cancer and asked him if he could have his brain after he died. He explained to the patient that he was conducting experiments on the effects of nicotine on the human brain.
“You’re weird,” DeNoble said the patient told him.
The patient said he also hadn’t smoked for two years. But DeNoble, who had been experimenting on rats and monkeys, was convinced that the effects of nicotine on the human brain lasted even after an individual quit smoking.
“The man told me that although he hadn’t smoked in years, he still woke up every morning wanting a cigarette,” DeNoble said.
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After the man died, his wife gave DeNoble permission to use his brain for experimentation. DeNoble said his initial hypothesis was right: The man’s brain cells showed nicotine-related alteration even though he hadn’t smoked for years.
“Young people don’t really recognize that nicotine is a drug that changes their brain,” DeNoble said.
In 1983, DeNoble took the results of his experiment to his bosses at Philip Morris. According to DeNoble, they were outraged that he had been performing experiments on the brain and not working on a safer cigarette like they had hired him to do. But DeNoble told them he had also invented a safer cigarette, one with special filters and a substitute for nicotine that could reduce tar by 80 percent.
DeNoble said at first the tobacco company seemed optimistic about the new cigarette but later changed its mind.
In April 1984, DeNoble was called to the executive offices of Philip Morris.
“Our decision is final: We’re not going to lose money, and if people have to die, that’s the way it is,” DeNoble said executives told him.
Philip Morris subsequently fired DeNoble but only after showing him a confidentiality contract he had signed that prohibited him by law from volunteering any information about the company or the experiments he had conducted.
“I went to the lab and told my partner that we had been fired,” said DeNoble. “I told him to pull our van around back, and when he asked why, I said, ‘Because we’re going to steal top secret documents.'”
DeNoble said that he gathered everything he could in his office. He said he worked so quickly and nervously that he broke one of his desk drawers. He said he threw the drawer in a box, loaded the van and left.
DeNoble said he talked to his lab partner, and they both decided to take what they knew to Congress. They found a lawyer interested in the case, and DeNoble gave him all the boxes of evidence he had been keeping in his garage.
However, DeNoble said his lawyer called a few weeks later and said someone had broken into his office and stolen all the evidence.
“Years later, I actually found out that our lawyer sold all the boxes back to Phillip Morris,” said DeNoble.
DeNoble said nothing happened for 10 years. But then, in 1994, DeNoble found out that CEOs of the seven major tobacco companies were going to testify before Congress about whether nicotine was addictive.
“My wife, who was also a scientist, came to me and said, ‘Remember when you had all that evidence in the garage, before giving it to the lawyer? Well, I looked through it, and I kept something,'” DeNoble said his wife told him.
He said his wife had found the desk drawer he had broken and hid it away without telling him. DeNoble said after his wife informed him of its whereabouts, he retrieved the drawer and in it found evidence of the experiments he had performed at Phillip Morris.
Knowing he was prohibited by law to volunteer the information, DeNoble said he drove to New Jersey and from a discreet location mailed to the FBI a photo of the secret lab he had worked in, a photo that he had found in the drawer his wife saved. Unwilling to give his name, DeNoble said he left his fingerprints all over the picture in hopes the FBI would track him down.
DeNoble said a few days later, agents showed up to his house. DeNoble said he denied everything until they took him in for questioning.
In front of a judge, DeNoble was sworn under oath to divulge what he knew.
“What does the oath mean?” DeNoble said he asked the judge.
“It means you have to tell the truth,” DeNoble said the judge said.
Because the judge’s statement was on the record, DeNoble said he felt comfortable revealing what he knew because he wasn’t volunteering the information as prohibited in his contract but rather being ordered by the court to tell the truth.
After testifying under oath, DeNoble said he raced home and told his wife to pack up because they were going to move.
“They’re going to kill us,” he said he told his wife.
Before they could leave, DeNoble said the phone rang. The person on the phone: President Bill Clinton, DeNoble said.
He said he told the president what he knew, and told him that he was scared for his life and his family. DeNoble said President Clinton told him an executive order was being issued that would nullify his contract with Philip Morris and that the Secret Service would provide protection for his family. In fact, DeNoble said, two agents were already outside his house.
According to DeNoble, the tobacco executives testifying before Congress had no idea that President Clinton knew everything he did. DeNoble said the companies were subsequently sued for $700 billion for lying to Congress and the American people.
“I’m not here today to tell you what to do,” DeNoble told students as he concluded his lecture. “I’m just giving you information. You need to make your own decisions.”
• Contact reporter Scott Neuffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 782-5121, ext. 217.
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