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South County Times: Addiction Incorporated

March 23, 2012 : By Kent Tentschert

Victor DeNoble grew up in a blue collar community in the midst of cigarettes and beer. Struggling through school, most of his summers were split between summer fun and summer school, while he looked forward to becoming a plumber like his father. But his father recognized Victor’s potential and sent him to a nearby college. There, during his freshman year, he discovered what had held him back all these years. He was dyslexic. Corrected his dyslexia turned both his grades and his life around.

Becoming a psychopharmecologist, DeNoble was approached by Philip Morris Tobacco Company to head up a secret division to study nicotine. At the time their chemists were altering nicotine trying to make a cigarette that was as addictive, but didn’t have the side effects – heart disease.

Thinking he was researching to create a healthier cigarette, DeNoble began studying the effects of nicotine on rats, whose brains react to chemicals similarly to human’s, thus researchers can make quick strides in their studies by observing rat reactions.

When he taught rats to press a lever for food, he found that when given the choice, they would choose nicotine at ever-increasing levels until they were addicted. They were hooked like humans.

Ingestion of nicotine causes hair to rise and one’s heart rate to increase, eventually leading to heart disease. DeNoble discovered that altering the nicotine to two-prime methyl nicotine satisfied the same cravings without the detrimental results.

However, he also noted that where mice would starve themselves to death for cocaine or heroin, they would not do so for nicotine. So why were smokers addicted to nicotine?

Victor DeNoble discovered the holy grail for cigarette manufacturers.

There are many chemicals in cigarettes. DeNoble discovered that when acid aldehyde was combined with nicotine, it made the nicotine wildly addictive. He was initially allowed to submit his findings to a scientific publication, but when the board members of Philip Morris learned of this discovery, they forced him to pull the paper.

For years prior to DeNoble’s discovery, “Big Tobacco” (the seven largest tobacco companies) agreed to never do animal studies, for it was far too dangerous to find out the true nature of their cigarettes, but Phillip Morris was always looking for a leg up and they found it.

As DeNoble thought that his discovery would allow Phillip Morris to create a healthier cigarette by using his new nicotine less the acid aldehayde, his employers now had a way to make their cigarettes more addictive – and only Phillip Morris Tobacco Company had this information.

It doesn’t take much to realize which path Philip Morris followed – they made their cigarettes more addictive with the old nicotine by adding acid aldehyde.

By 1982 there was a spike in the number of lawsuits against Big Tobacco, as Philip Morris’ legal team began vetting research and development labs, they keyed on DeNoble’s lab, saying his research was too dangerous for the company. 

Soon he was fired and told to kill his rats – and Vic DeNoble faded into obscurity.

10 YEARS LATER – ABC News began an in-depth investigation of Big Tobacco which started the ball rolling to end the cabal’s grip on the secrets they kept.

As the FDA began its investigation, it turned to DeNoble for inside information for the FDA didn’t even know their corporate structure, much less its unrepentent activities. And although he was forthcoming with his damning information, DeNoble was bound by the gag clause in every Philip Morris employment contract – stating that he could never divulge any information as to what he did while in the employ of Philip Morris.

Finally, DeNoble was released from his gag order and became the first whistleblower to reveal that tobacco companies knowingly marketed and sold a harmful and addictive product to consumers.

“Addiction Incorporated” is a fascinating look inside the secretive world of tobacco companies. Building an unusual story about a boy with pedestrian roots overcoming the odds to finish college and graduate school, and eventually take down Big Tobacco is both riveting and uplifting. 

Maybe it’s my Republican roots, but I’ve always felt that tobacco companies were unfairly vilified for selling a product that most knew was addictive, especially when we accept alcohol’s effects on society. However, learning about the decades of research that these companies undertook to create a more addictive product, regardless of the health costs to smokers and those nearby, makes this documentary all the more satisfying. Although the legal matters that wrap up the final act become a bit tedious, they are necessary in order to witness Big Tobacco’s free fall from an industry that had never settled a lawsuit to one that was scrambling to stay in existence.

As the legal representative for Philip Morris later speaks of the responsibility to create a safer product and be more responsible to society, it rings hollow and feels patronizing. The phrase, “It’s better to ask forgiveness, than permission” comes to mind here.

In addition, DeNoble now travels the country talking to students regarding his research and the fallacy of smoking, and ironically, is paid using some of the funds from the settlement Big Tobacco made with the U.S. government.

“Addiction Incorporated” is truly addictive for this well executed documentary spins a tale of an unlikely hero slaying the tobacco Goliath with his bullet of information.

Source: South County Times