Victor Denoble

Posted by pamela mccoll on Saturday, April 21, 2012

Philip Morris couldn't snuff out Victor DeNoble

New documentary lights up addiction scientist's story

Victor DeNoble moved to San Diego seven years ago
Victor DeNoble moved to San Diego seven years ago — John R. McCutchen
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Written by
Peter Rowe
6 p.m., Jan. 25, 2012
Updated 6 p.m. , Jan. 26, 2012

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“Damn it,” DeNoble was told, “you’ve made us into a pharmaceutical company.”

His research, though, was proof positive that nicotine addicted. With his supervisors’ permission, DeNoble and two co-authors submitted their findings to a professional publication. It was scheduled for the Journal of Psychopharmacology’s September 1983 issue when DeNoble was forced to withdraw the paper. In the view of Philip Morris’ lawyers, the scientists’ proof positive was a legal proof negative, damning evidence that cigarettes were drugs.

Still, DeNoble won promotions and more funds for his lab. When he and a colleague, Paul Mele, were summoned to see their boss on April 5, 1984, he expected good news.

Instead, they were fired and muzzled. To receive a severance package, they were forced to agree to never discuss their work.

#1 whistle-blower

In 1994, a decade after DeNoble’s firing, he was contacted by federal investigators. FDA Chairman David Kessler, about to appear before a congressional committee investigating tobacco’s health effects, needed experts to brief him. Could DeNoble help?

Citing the nondisclosure agreement, DeNoble declined.

That wasn’t good enough. In one of the most dramatic scenes of “Addiction Incorporated,” Los Angeles congressman Henry Waxman presses the CEO of Philip Morris to release DeNoble from this agreement. After numerous evasions, the tobacco executive finally agrees.

Two weeks later, DeNoble testified that nicotine is addictive; that Philip Morris knew this; and that the corporation — and, no doubt, its competitors — sought ways to heighten this effect.

This is all common knowledge — now. Then? “Victor De Noble was the first whistle-blower,” Waxman said in the documentary. “I know a lot of people have talked about other whistle-blowers. But he was the first one.”

As “Addiction Incorporated” notes, DeNoble became a key ally of the states attorneys general who sued the tobacco companies, eventually winning that landmark $209 billion settlement. Despite this payout, big tobacco is bigger than ever — Philip Morris, for instance, has seen its stock price climb 51 percent in the last five years.

Will “Addiction Incorporated” further tarnish these corporations?

Philip Morris did not address questions about DeNoble and his research but a company spokesman did comment on the movie.

“This film covers topics regarding smoking that have been in the public domain for some time,” David Sutton, a Philip Morris USA spokesman, said via email Thursday. “PM USA agrees with the overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking is addictive and causes serious diseases in smokers.”

“Addiction Incorporated” concludes with President Obama signing a 2009 law expanding the FDA’s oversight to include cigarettes. “PM USA stood alone among the major cigarette manufacturers in support of FDA regulation over cigarettes,” Sutton noted, “and believes that this regulation can provide significant benefits to tobacco manufacturers and adult tobacco consumers.”

That’s not enough, DeNoble argues. The movie shows him running on the trails near the Santa Luz home he shares with his wife, Kimi DeNoble, but those jogs are rare occasions. That was a rare occasion. More often, he’s running to airports or classrooms, preparing to talk to students about science, nicotine and rats — both four- and two-legged varieties.

How could he ever believe that a tobacco company would want a safer cancer stick?

He smiled. These days, his close cropped hair is graying and his face has acquired a few wrinkles. But there’s still something fresh and idealistic about that smile.

“I was young,” he said, “and I was wrong.”

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