Cheating death

In 1971, Victor DeNoble thought he was going to be a plumber, just like his father. But after his dad had encouraged him to go to college to “meet girls,” DeNoble began taking night classes in his hometown of Queens, N.Y.

The problem was, according to DeNoble, that all the women in the night classes were married. He made a few friends in his classes, and on the weekends would go to Nathan’s, a local hangout. Little did he know his travels there and back would lead him to study drug addiction.

DeNoble said he would serve as the designated driver because though he would have been drinking, his friends were shooting up heroin.

His fascination with watching his friends get too high to pick up women led him to eventually find work at Philip Morris as a research scientist studying nicotine with Dr. Paul Mele. This came after many years of schooling, including a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin.

DeNoble also didn’t know that his expertise would land him in a secret lab for the tobacco industry and create havoc for his employer.

DeNoble spoke at the Union Theatre Thursday as part of a nationwide tour to disclose the truth about the tobacco industry, particularly Philip Morris, and its effect on those who use cigarettes.

Dr. DeNoble said he is determined to get the truth out about what the tobacco industry knew about nicotine and that they were consciously killing people who are addicted.

In April 1994, seven executives from the tobacco industry stood before Congress and testified that nicotine was not addictive, but rather it was a choice. Two weeks after the testimony on April 28, DeNoble and Mele testified that the Philip Morris and the other six tobacco executives knew 10 years earlier that nicotine is an addictive drug and were fully conscious the product killed people.

“I worked at Philip Morris for about four years. My job was to find a substitute for nicotine because 138,000 people die of heart attacks from nicotine,” DeNoble said. “We wanted to remove the nicotine and replace it with another drug that is still addictive but it didn’t activate the heart receptors.”

Instead of working on what he was hired to do, he worked on his own experiment at the Philip Morris laboratory in Richmond, Virginia. With a background in drug addiction, he took rats and injected nicotine into their systems and watched what happened to their brains.

Later he met a man in the hospital who was dying of lung cancer and asked if he could have his brain after he died. The man agreed.

Momentarily after he stopped breathing, the donor’s wife phoned DeNoble in Richmond and mailed the brain of the dead man for further experiment on nicotine addiction.

With experiments, the two scientists proved that nicotine changed in a rat’s brain, in a monkey’s brain and in the human brain. However, the company could not fire DeNoble because in 1981 he had developed a drug that could save lives and be free of nicotine. The “safer cigarette” was developed in 1983.

Four months later on April 5, 1984, DeNoble and Mele were fired.

“The problem was the tobacco company’s lawyers decided if they made that cigarette, they would have to admit that they had been lying for 30 years and it would be problematic. They killed the rats, shut down the lab and made us pack,” DeNoble said.

Before leaving, evidence was stolen, according to DeNoble, to prove that the tobacco industry knew they had been killing people and that there were ways to save lives. However, the evidence wouldn’t do any good, because a gag order had been placed on the scientists.

“We sent copies of pictures from the lab to the FBI. We had pictures of rats addicted to nicotine and we put our fingerprints on the slides so that the FBI would find us,” DeNoble explained. “That was a Monday. Thursday the FBI was at my house.”

As recently as Jan. 5, 2005, the U.S. government is filing lawsuits against tobacco companies for people on Medicare who are addicted to nicotine, according to DeNoble. People who are on Medicare have their insurance paid by taxpayers. DeNoble said the government wants the tobacco industry to pay for the insurance because they caused the patients to become addicted. This case is currently ongoing against seven tobacco companies.

“My contribution is to show what the tobacco industry knew and when. My role is to tell the jury or the judge that we had rats that were addicted and to say that they made a conscious decision not to make a safer cigarette that could have saved lives. They chose to make money and profits over lives,” DeNoble said.

The tobacco company owns the patent on the safer drug as well as the safer cigarette, according to DeNoble.

[email protected]