In the late 1970s, a young researcher was hired by a major tobacco company to help create a cigarette that posed fewer health risks to smokers, but was just as addictive as the company’s current products. At the same time, the firm was insisting publicly that there was no evidence that smoking caused chemical dependence.
If this premise sounds familiar, that might be because it resembles the setup of 1999’s The Insider, the docudrama based on revelations by former Brown & Williamson scientist Jeffrey Wigand. Addiction Incorporated is about a different whistle-blower, who worked for a different tobacco company. And it’s engrossing, even if it does lack the element of surprise.
Although he drops out of the story at times, Addiction Incorporated mostly follows Victor DeNoble, who grew up expecting to follow his father into the plumbing trade. Despite struggling as a student, he managed to get into college, where an introductory psychology class led to the discovery that he had dyslexia. That condition bested, he pursued a career as a research psychologist.
DeNoble’s work with rats attracted the attention of Philip Morris, which was looking for a substitute for nicotine. The company craved a substance that, like nicotine, created a hard-to-shake habit — but which was less likely to cause heart attacks and strokes.
Using animation that depicts both rats and rat-like humans, director Charles Evans Jr. visualizes the progress of DeNoble’s research; in one scene, people with rat-like tails smoke and dance to Latin jazz, apparently blissful.
Philip Morris’ top executives were eventually pretty happy, too: DeNoble and his colleagues, who included Paul Mele, found a version of nicotine that was easier on the heart but just as difficult to kick.
But by the early 1980s, Big Tobacco was being pummeled by lawsuits seeking to hold the industry liable for cancer, emphysema and other diseases. Philip Morris didn’t want DeNoble and Mele’s work on the record, and forced the cancellation of a presentation at a scientific conference. Not long after, the company canceled the research altogether and fired the researchers.
It wasn’t for another decade that ABC News, New Orleans attorney Wendell Gauthier and Rep. Henry Waxman got interested in the subject. After FDA Commissioner David Kessler revealed that one tobacco company had done research on nicotine’s addictive nature, Waxman demanded to know which company it was. Soon, DeNoble and Mele were testifying before Congress.
Science ultimately trumps commerce and conspiracy in Addiction Incorporated, but the movie isn’t entirely a profile in courage. Rather than fight a $10 billion Philip Morris libel suit, ABC News apologized for its report on the nicotine research. Several pro-tobacco congressmen tried to undermine the hearings, and one right-wing commentator — later revealed to have some chemical dependencies of his own — dismissed as “liberal” propaganda any link between cigarettes and ill health. That was Rush Limbaugh, and his remarks came during the period when he was on TV, so Evans has video of the rant.
In fact, in part because many of the choicest moments occurred in congressional hearing rooms, the documentary is well-supplied with images. Other than contemporary interviews with some of the players, Evans doesn’t really need original footage. But he indulges in some anyway, notably a staged sequence of execs applauding DeNoble’s research and some scenes of noted Washington landmarks, shot after dark. Both are distracting, and the bid to make D.C. look benighted seems odd in a movie like this. DeNoble aside, Addiction Incorporated finds most of its heroes in Congress, the White House and federal agencies.