TAMPA — Healthy human lungs look a lot like blue cheese, off-white in color with some dark blue veins visible on the surface. By contrast, the lungs of a longtime smoker look like leather: dull, black, weathered and hard, like an old satchel.
A 12-year-old sees the two kinds of lungs side by side, lets out a horrified gasp and runs off to tell her mother. Another mother walks up with her daughter and says, "I want you to look at this. That's what happens when you smoke."
The lungs are part of the Body Worlds exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa. The exhibit provides an inside look at the human body, exposing its intricate network of muscles, tissues, bones and blood vessels. Each of the more than 200 authentic human specimens, from whole bodies to individual organs, is graphic and amazing.
But only the case containing the lungs and heart of a smoker beside healthy organs gets that audible intake of air followed by remarks like, "nasty," "the color is icky," and "Don't go there, you'll wanna puke."
Last Friday a group of 100 Hernando County sixth-graders from the Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics was touring the exhibit. Makenzie Cummings, the girl who took one look and ran off to get her mother, said the message about smoking is clear: "Not to do it and that it's bad." Austin Lacy, also a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Challenger, asked, "Who would want to smoke if it's going to make our lungs look like that?"
Adults feel the exhibit's impact too. Vienus Claxton, 31, stares at the case, unable to tear away from the big black lump under the glass. It makes her think of all the people she knows who smoke.
"I thought of my mother," the Lakeland woman says. "She's 64, a smoker since she was 16. A pack a day."
Stopping on the spot
Dr. Miguel Alvelo-Rivera hasn't seen the Body Worlds exhibit but he's seen plenty of tobacco-damaged lungs. Alvelo-Rivera is a cancer specialist and thoracic surgeon at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. He says pointing out tumors or evidence of emphysema on a CT scan or MRI helps patients fully grasp the effects of chronic smoking. "But the trouble is," he says, "it comes too late, when they already have a problem."
He sees value in putting diseased organs on public display. "It gives them a clear connection to what we preach and what they are getting into if they continue (to smoke)."
In 2006, Body Worlds joined with the American Cancer Society and launched the I Quit! anti-smoking campaign after visitors started leaving unfinished packs of cigarettes on the display case containing the damaged heart and lungs.
Starting this week, MOSI will offer literature on quitting, and, in case any smokers are inspired, a container to collect discarded smoking materials. Organizers fully expect to get some deposits.
Three years ago, Karen McKenna, 47, of Tampa saw a similar museum exhibit that included black, smoke-damaged lungs. Within two weeks the Tampa woman had quit a 25-year smoking habit. She remembers thinking, "I can't believe I'm doing that to my body."
McKenna says she wanted to quit for a long time. The exhibit provided the right incentive.
"Everyone has the time that they're ready, their turning point," she says. "That was it for me."
Irene Maher can be reached at email@example.com.