Big Screen Berkeley: Addiction Incorporated

January 17, 2012

Truth in advertising: it’s a simple concept that for some reason seems extremely hard to put into practice. Case in point: the tobacco industry, which spent decades trying to convince people that cancer sticks were good for you. Their own research, of course, proved otherwise — but Big Tobacco couldn’t let anyone know that. Addiction Incorporated, a new documentary opening this Friday at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas, relates the industry’s desperate, decades-long effort to keep the truth under wraps.

Directed by UC Berkeley graduate Charles Evans Jr., the film focuses on the work of research scientist Victor DeNoble, a graduate of New York’s Adelphi University hired in 1980 by Philip Morris to help develop a cigarette less likely to kill their customers. DeNoble did his job, but his research proved a two-edged sword for the industry — on the one hand pointing the way towards expanded sales and greater profit; on the other, dismantling the cartel’s primary line of defense: that they had no evidence proving their product was harmful.

"Addiction Incorporated", directed by Cal graduate Charles Evans Jr, tells the story of Big Tobacco's undoing

Using animal experimentation at Philip Morris’s Behavioral Research Department, DeNoble and colleague Paul Mele confirmed that nicotine was highly addictive, discovered that increasing the amount of the chemical compound acetaldehyde in cigarettes decreased the risk of heart disease in smokers, and — most importantly — determined that lab rats loved nicotine and acetaldehyde in combination. Together, the two ingredients massively increased the addictive power of cigarettes.

Philip Morris had hit the jackpot: they were on the verge of developing a highly addictive new product that wouldn’t kill their customers quite as quickly as their old product did.

The research results, however, undercut a previous half century of industry propaganda. Philip Morris fired their scientists, bound them to a confidentiality agreement, and buried their academic paper (‘Nicotine as a Positive Reinforcer in Rats’) in the company archives. Cautious executives decided that the risk — of admitting to the world that they were little more than dope peddlers in three-piece suits — outweighed the reward of increased profit.

Unsurprisingly, there’s no archival footage detailing all this, and Evans relies on an uneasy combination of Errol Morris-style ‘dramatic recreations’ and bizarre and vaguely distasteful animated sequences to tell this part of the story. It doesn’t really work, but, once Addiction Incorporated moves out of the 1980s, the film improves and the story becomes even more interesting.

By 1994 Philip Morris was springing leaks. A television exposé, a tightening of the regulatory screws at the Food and Drug Administration, and — most critically — a House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment hearing at which seven tobacco CEOs perjured themselves, proved the industry’s undoing. Such was the damage that DeNoble was finally released from his confidentiality agreement and allowed to talk about his research.

It’s here where Addiction Incorporated really shines, as tales of FDA subterfuge rub shoulders with the colorful exploits of a Louisiana lawyer named Wendell Gauthier. The footage of well-heeled tobacco peddlers coming to the realization that their day on the Hill wasn’t going to be the joy ride they anticipated is priceless — indeed, their skewering by Oklahoma congressman Mike Synar is almost as satisfying as the scenes in Costa-Gavras’ Z where Yves Montand charges the Greek colonels with murder. There’s nothing quite like watching the smirks of the powerful turn to frowns of disbelief.

The film features an unnecessary coda about DeNoble’s current youth outreach activities, partly funded by tobacco company dollars, that take him to schools across the country to lecture about the dangers of drug addiction. I’m not sure what compelled Evans to include this brief segment — we already know DeNoble’s a good guy — but perhaps its the fulfillment of a contractual obligation. Regardless, you can safely leave the theatre at the 95-minute mark without missing anything of consequence.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.