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Victor DeNoble, of San Diego, speaks to students about the dangers of smoking and drugs at Heritage High School in Brentwood, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 24, 2012. The former Phillips Morris researcher studied the addictive properties of nicotine -- its effects on the central nervous system -- before he was fired because of what the sensitive nature of his findings revealed. DeNoble subsequently became the first to testify before Congress about the industry's "dirty secret," which led to widespread changes in public policy and new legislation. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff)

BRENTWOOD -- Victor DeNoble was rattling along in his presentation at a breathless pace when he abruptly paused, donned a surgical glove, and reached into a plastic bag to produce the frozen brain of an old friend.

Hundreds of teens in Liberty High School's auditorium gasped and groaned as he scurried up and down the aisles, arm extended so the curious could get a better look at what was left of Sarah, a 35-year-old Capuchin monkey the former scientist had worked with -- or rather, experimented on -- during his research into the effects of nicotine and other drugs on brain chemistry.

Sarah had become a hard-core addict as the cigarettes she puffed on delivered more than 4,000 toxic chemicals into her bloodstream and, within seconds, straight to that part of the brain that controls one's sense of well-being, DeNoble said.

The more she smoked, the more of the neurotransmitter dopamine she needed to feel happy -- and nicotine prompted the brain to release additional quantities of that chemical into her system.

"Drug addiction is a self-inflicted disease," DeNoble told his rapt audience. "Nobody addicts us. We addict ourselves."

Known as the first tobacco industry whistle-blower, whose testimony before Congress became the catalyst for sweeping changes in national public health policies as well as fines and laws targeting cigarette manufacturers, the 62-year-old DeNoble these days takes his warnings about the insidious nature of drug addiction to an estimated 350,000 students a year.


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Over the next few days, he's making the rounds of Contra Costa County schools from Liberty Union High School District's Brentwood and Oakley campuses to sites in San Ramon, El Sobrante, Richmond, Hercules and Antioch.

Sponsored by a Liberty Union's Tobacco-Use Prevention Education grant, DeNoble incorporated laughs -- and the gross factor -- in a rapid-fire delivery that grabbed teens' attention as he gave them a hard-hitting dose of reality.

He recounted the secret laboratory research he did for tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris Inc., which included not only trying to find a nicotine substitute that wouldn't cause heart attacks and strokes but testing the effects of nicotine, heroin and other addictive drugs on rats and monkeys.

DeNoble showed slides of rats that were temporarily paralyzed after initially activating a switch that delivered a dose of nicotine, a dose they eventually were giving themselves 90 times a day.

"Nicotine changes the way your brain works," he emphasized, noting that it can take from two to six months for a person to develop a similar tolerance to tobacco.

And that addiction can last for as long as a decade even after someone quits, he said.

To drive home his point, DeNoble held aloft a cross-section of the brain from a 63-year-old lung cancer patient.

Exclamations of surprise and mock disgust erupted again as he carried the light brown lump around the room while explaining that the man admitted he still craved cigarettes two years after he had stopped smoking and there were no traces of nicotine left in his brain.

What's more, the vast majority of addicts become that way before they're 21, DeNoble said, noting that developing brains acquire cravings faster than mature ones.

DeNoble also described stealing boxes of sensitive documents from Philip Morris after the company fired him in an effort to suppress the damning findings of his nicotine research.

The information proved that it had been lying to the public in its assurances that the drug was harmless and could have forced the company to take a costly volume of products off the shelves, he said.

DeNoble later testified against the tobacco industry before a Congressional subcommittee, a pivotal event that paved the way for a legal settlement between the biggest companies that will cost them billions in medical care reimbursements and forced changes to their marketing practices.

His unrelenting message might have changed at least one young smoker.

"After you see what can happen, it makes me think twice," said 16-year-old Kayla Barber.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/Rowena Coetsee.