A Conversation About Addiction Incorporated with Director Charles Evans Junior and Behavioral Scientist Victor DeNoble
In the 1980s, Victor DeNoble was a research scientist at a major tobacco company, where he was tasked with finding a substitute for nicotine that would not cause heart attacks. He succeeded- but in the process, he proved something that the industry had been denying for years: that cigarettes were addictive. He also uncovered a new addictive ingredient- setting off a chain of events that still reverberates even today.
The true story of Victor DeNoble, one of the most important and influential whistleblowers of all time, is the focus of director Charles Evans Junior documentary Addiction Incorporated.
In a true act of modern-day heroism, DeNoble took his findings to the people despite a strict confidentiality agreement, eventually testifying about his research in the infamous 1994 Congressional hearings with the seven heads of the major tobacco companies. An unprecedented alliance of journalists, politicians, attorneys, and whistleblowers achieved what was once considered impossible- the first ever federal regulation of the tobacco industry, which continues to have repercussions even today.
Filmmaker Charles Evans and Victor DeNoble are in Los Angeles for the opening of their film this Friday, January 13, and we had a chance to speak to them about the film and their journey to take on the tobacco industry and bring about change.
Maria Bozzi: Congratulations to you both for taking the tobacco companies on. This is a very gutsy documentary about a very gutsy individual (Victor DeNoble). I hear this documentary took 15 years to make, why was that—was it because there was any interference from the tobacco industry?
Charles Evans: No, it’s just the way things worked out. I first got in touch with Victor in 1994 after he testified and I wanted to know more. And his story working within the industry was an intriguing one to me. His personal story of wanting to do good through science became a primary interest. And it took a while for history to get to a point where I saw some closure or potential for an ending. The 2009 bill that was signed into a law by President Obama became that ending for me and we just started shooting when that prospect became likely. I needed history to provide me with an ending.
MB: You were very patient, and it paid off. The signing of the 2009 bill by President Obama shows us how an individual’s courage to tell the truth can make a difference and bring about change. I think that’s what’s very special about this documentary. It takes on an issue on a personal level. Through the lens of a very strong and likable character, through Victor’s lens, we were able to understand very complex scientific concepts and intricate political maneuvers. Victor, do you want to talk about being the focus of this documentary and how you saw your role in the changes that came about?
Victor DeNoble: Well, first I was very honored to be approached by Charlie. He had the vision of seeing that this was going to be something that moved this industry forward. And my role in the documentary was really to explain why I went there, what I did and to explain the science. I think that the documentary is kind of self explanatory when it comes to the consequences of what they did to us in suppressing our research and eventually firing us and silencing us with the secrecy agreement. So I think my role here was to be myself and to talk about what happened to us in the industry and to allow the public to really make their own decision. So, we’re not judgmental at all, we’re just saying – here’s the science, here’s what happened to us – you the public decide whether this is an ethical thing to do or not.
How do you see the documentary becoming a part of the dialogue, or I would say the battle – against the tobacco companies as the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Act goes into effect? Especially if it allows the FDA to reduce the nicotine levels in cigarettes to almost non-existent. How do you see this documentary playing out in that dialogue or battle right now.
CE: I think if people, as this recedes into history, if not documented it would be forgotten. I think these things are important to remind us of where the industry came from and what they are capable of.
VD: I firmly agree. What I’m worried about is, because the industry is now regulated, well they’re not regulated, they’re subject to regulation, people perceive that they’re regulated, and they’ll get complacent. I think the film shows us – it reminds us the history of the tobacco industry and it reminds us that the industry is not going to lay down to regulation and say “Ok, you guys win, we’ll take nicotine out of tobacco products.” The film is actually a reminder that this is an industry that has a 50 – 60 year history of deception, of legal maneuvers and I suspect that they’re going to continue to do that, even though regulations have now been signed and the formula for regulation is moving forward.
This is a very important and timely film. Are there any specific distribution, outreach, or grassroots plans for the film? Especially this year when the regulation issues start going into effect?
CE: We are in 15 theaters over the next 11 weeks and that is the extent of our distribution plan. We may book more theaters.
Are you planning any community screenings or educational uses for the film in conjunction or after the theatrical release?
VD: Today we were at the Daniel Pearl School and we screened it for 150 young students who want to be investigative journalists and they responded very well! We did a round table with them for lunch. And most of the cities we go to, I’ll do a presentation at a local school talking about my story and that’s usually somewhere between as little as 200 as many as 1000 students at a time. So we are doing community outreach in each of the cities we’re going into.
Do you think the tobacco industry will try to stop you? Have they seen the film, or have you heard from them?
CD: We haven’t heard from them at all. They have a lot more substantial problems than us that they’re battling in court. I hope to say the same thing in a year.
I thought the interviews were great. How did you secure interviews with subjects in the tobacco industry? In particular someone like Steven Parish the VP of Corporate Affairs of Phillip Morris at the time. How did you get him to participate, and in a way be a little forthcoming with the information he provides?
CD: It took some time. Talking to Steve about being an off camera source. And then, when he got a feeling of comfort that the project would be matter of fact and balanced, he agreed to go on camera and talk about the facts that he was a part of. And that lent the product balance.
That was great that you were able to go to someone from within the company. And how does he feel about his role and everything that went down now?
CD: You would have to ask Steve about that, but he thinks differently than many tobacco executives and he actually wanted FDA regulation. At some point he came to the view that that was in the industry’s interest. I think regulation came about because Phillip Morris strongly supported it at some point. Because if you regulate, it would lock in their #1 position. Because any changes that happen after it would be relatively mild in market shares.
MB: Switching gears, let’s talk about the filmmaking and the craft. I thought the recreation and animation sequences were brilliant. Can you talk about the process of working with a team to build those into the film?
CD: I think animation is a creative bungee jump. It’s a huge risk and can produce a lot of emotion. It turned out well, but it was no fun during the making of it. It was really hard to communicate visual intent with an abstract thing like a picture and have it go back and forth. It took a long time for relatively few on screen minutes. It’s a beautiful thing in the end, but it was the biggest, creative risk in the project. But it was absolutely necessary to be able to communicate changes in brain chemistry as Victor’s story introduced new and important science specific ideas.
MB: It paid off because they were very effective! They added an element of fun to the film. What about the recreations? Were you always inclined to do recreations?
CD: I didn’t want to do talking heads. I wanted to be as dynamic and engaging – it’s a linear telling of his story without a narrator. The best documentaries you can’t tell they’re recreations, they blend into the archival, and that’s what we tried to do.
Well, I think you have made a very cinematic documentary that allows viewers to engage and connect in a very direct way with this “burning” issue. Congratulations and good luck with its release.
For additional interviews and outtakes, visit http://addictionincorporated.comSource: Film Independent