Schooling the teacher

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By Warren Parkin

I taught freshman composition in the morning at Central Florida Community College in Chiefland then attended middle school in Bronson Tuesday afternoon. And I was schooled.

I know that sounds strange. But it’s the truth.

I went back to middle school because my 10-year-old son, Taylor, who is in fifth grade spent 40 minutes talking to me the night before about a presentation on nicotine that he had seen by a “real scientist,” Dr. Victor DeNoble.

Taylor loves science. He excitedly told me about Dr. DeNoble’s presentation at Whispering Winds, fully knowing his audience, worrying for my safety without overtly saying so.

You see, I smoke.

Taylor doesn’t remember a time when I didn’t. Funny thing is, I didn’t start smoking daily until the year that I met Taylor – he was two years old back then and I was 38.

It was eight months after my first wife died of cancer when I began smoking in earnest. At the time, I missed Sherrie so much that sometimes I felt like dying. I took chances. “Why not smoke for a year?” I asked myself. “Even if each cigarette takes seven minutes off of my life that will be nothing in comparison to trying something new and meeting new people,” I reasoned. “Besides,” I rationalized, “men in my family tend to live into their 80s and 90s. My grandfather smoked for more than 50 years and still lived until he was 94. Even if smoking for a year takes a year off my life,” I thought, “what will it matter in the long run?”

Immediately, I cultivated a two-pack-a-day habit.

I loved it. I loved the feeling, the taste, the ritual, the mystery and the conversation. Smoking became a way to order my life and measure the day. I felt simultaneously justified and rebelliously defiant. With each puff I celebrated my new devil-may-care attitude. I was in control. I was free. I could do whatever I wanted to do. I could quit when I decided to quit. I was the captain of my destiny. I was immortal. I could do what I wanted when I wanted because I had all the time in the world.

Nearly a year into my foray in recklessness, a former smoker told me that it would be hard to quit. I was planning to quit the next month and I thought I knew better. “It will be harder than you think,” he said. “It becomes your best friend,” he explained. “When no one else is there, it will be there for you – whenever you’re lonely, sad, or angry. It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t leave you. It’s so easy to light up again.” At the time, I smiled to myself, confident that he was either weak or exaggerating, probably both.

That was seven years ago.

I still smoke.

This year I spent five days in the hospital due to complications from smoking. I felt fine.  But my body did not. Doctors spoke to me with trepidation. They thought I had cancer. “Why do you smoke?” one asked. “Do you want to die?” “No,” I replied. (If I were being truthful, I would have said, “No, not anymore. I’m in love again and have six children.”)

Maybe that’s why I had to hear Dr. Victor DeNoble speak.

DeNoble worked for the tobacco industry in the early ’80s and was paid to develop a replacement drug for nicotine which his employers told  him had the negative effect of killing customers by causing  hundreds of thousands of  heart attacks every year. He succeeded in developing an equally addictive drug that would hook people on smoking without killing them. 

At the same time that he was developing an almost harmless cigarette, he also looked into the effects that nicotine had on the brain. He fed rats nicotine. He fed a chimp nicotine. He studied the brain of a man who died of lung cancer. Throughout these studies, DeNoble found physical, observable changes in the brain caused by nicotine.

He showed off three of these brain specimens to the middle school students and to me. Girls ran shrieking to the bathroom when he pulled the human brain out.

“If you get addicted you will smoke for 20 to 30 years,” DeNoble said. He showed us the brain of a 63-year-old man who died of lung cancer. Prior to dying the man told DeNoble, “I quit smoking two years ago. But I wake up every morning and want a cigarette.” Stopping smoking does not mean that the desire for nicotine goes away, DeNoble explained. It takes five to 10 years for the brain to return to a pre-nicotine condition, he said. During that time, the brain craves nicotine. That’s why people smoke.

In 1984 DeNoble was told that the safe cigarettes that he had developed which would save hundreds of thousands of lives each year would not be made because it would take revenue away from the tobacco companies and open them up to claims that their product was harmful.  He was fired.

“We’re not here to lose money. The decision is to let people die,” DeNoble reported about the parting words his employer gave him.

In 1994 DeNoble testified in Congress about his experiments, which proved that nicotine caused actual physical changes in the brain and that the tobacco industry knew that their products were harmful. His testimony was instrumental in fining the industry $700 billion and prohibiting the sponsorship of sporting events and the use of cartoons like Joe Camel in advertising.

Kristina Zachery, Tobacco Prevention Specialist in Levy County, summed up DeNoble’s message: “There is an industry that targets our generation. They want to get us addicted to their products so we give them money until we die. I think that’s wrong.”

I think that’s wrong too. I’ve given them way too much money already. Too much of my time and too much of my health too.

The presentation gave me much to ponder about addiction, health and paying for the opportunity to die early. It’s a lesson this teacher needed to learn.

Now all I need to do is quit.