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Chicago Tribune : Big Tobacco whistleblower at ease on camera

February 9, 2012 : By Nina Metz

“Rats don’t have social pressures. Rats don’t care about losing weight. Rats don’t go to the movies. The only reason a rat would press a lever for nicotine is if its brain said, ‘I like it.'”

That’s Victor DeNoble, a former research scientist for cigarette-maker Philip Morris, explaining his early work with lab rats and nicotine addiction in the new documentary” Addiction Incorporated,” which comes to the Siskel Film Center this week with DeNoble and director Charles Evans Jr. in tow.

As he explains in the film, DeNoble was hired at Philip Morris in 1979 with the understanding that his employer wanted to develop a safer cigarette and reduce the negative effects of nicotine.

“Here was a company that was willing to improve its product, and that improvement would result in better health,” he says. “I thought this was the greatest company in the world.”

DeNoble’s research would reveal not only that nicotine is addictive but that another chemical found in cigarette smoke called acetaldehyde strengthens the effect of nicotine on the brain. Cigarettes weren’t just habit-forming; manipulated in just the right ratios, nicotine and acetaldehyde form a highly addictive super cocktail. Not that the tobacco industry wanted any of this to get out, going so far as to fire DeNoble and suppress his findings for more than a decade before FDA investigators got involved. The heads of the four big tobacco companies were called to testify before Congress in 1994, paving the way for DeNoble’s testimony shortly thereafter.

The cigarette industry’s issues may be old news at this point, with public ire so keenly focused on Wall Street and the banking industry, but “Addiction Incorporated” does take on a larger thematic relevance.

As filmmaker Evans put it when we talked recently: “Does a corporation consider the lives of people as a cost of doing business? Five-hundred-thousand Americans are going to die from tobacco-related illness every year, and that is an annual testament of corporate willingness to do anything to make money.”

(The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which, in part, is a result of DeNoble’s findings, would require large and graphic health warnings on cigarette packaging and advertising; the tobacco industry is suing to overturn this rule on the grounds that it violates free speech rights, a case that could end up in the Supreme Court.)

The first half of the film — before the politicians and the lawyers enter the story line — is the most effective, largely because of some nifty rat animations illustrating what those little buggers likely felt during the experiments, and DeNoble’s colloquial way of breaking down the science. He is a wonderfully charismatic presence on camera, particularly when explaining his work at Philip Morris.

Job one was to turn the rats into test subjects that would self-administer nicotine by hitting a switch. In other words, turn the rats into smokers. On the first day, the rats hit the switch two or three times. Less than a week later, they were hitting the switch seven times a day.

“We got to Day 21,” DeNoble says, “they were hitting the switch 90 times every single day.”

With his close-cropped hair and mustache, dressed casually in dark button-down shirt and blue jeans, DeNoble doesn’t really fit the stereotype of a scientist. Gregarious and talkative, he looks and sounds as if he could be a firefighter. (Evans rigged an angled mirror to his camera, which allowed DeNoble to make eye contact with the filmmaker while also looking directly into the camera, a device without which “it would have been extremely difficult to face a camera and try to be natural,” DeNoble told me.)

Documentaries that leave a lasting impression are almost always anchored by charismatic characters, and Evans (who is the nephew of “Chinatown” producer Robert Evans) lucked out with DeNoble.

“I know that I love to talk to people about science,” DeNoble said, “and boy, I can get passionate about it.

“Have I been told I’m charismatic? Yes. A lot of it, believe it or not, had to do with the fact that I have dyslexia,” which went undetected through high school. DeNoble was a lousy student, which meant he avoided developing any egghead speech patterns.

“There was no expectation that I would go to college,” he said. “I think my early upbringing led me to be very comfortable talking to people in a very casual way that maybe I wouldn’t have had if I had thought, ‘OK, I have to go to college, I’ve got to become a scientist.'”

And quite possibly it gave him the fortitude to do battle with attorneys from the tobacco industry: “I was in a deposition once around 2004 where a lawyer looked at me and said, ‘I’ve been assigned to you since 1982. My job is to follow your life, and I know everything about you and what you’ve done.’ At that point it didn’t freak me out, because by this time I had been deposed 26 times and had been accused of everything from hating animals to hating apple pie.

“The one thing that I am thankful to the tobacco industry for is that they honed me as a witness. They threw everything they could throw at me for years, and by the time I walked into a courtroom I was like, ‘Dudes, you gave me an education that’s going to come back to bite you in the butt, and you have no idea what’s coming.'”

Victor DeNoble and Charles Evans Jr. will be present for a Q-and-A at Friday’s screening, and Evans will be at Saturday’s screening. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.

Source: Chicago Tribune