Rightbox – ‘Addiction Incorporated’ movie review: How Big Tobacco was taken down

March 5, 2012 : By Ryan McNally

For my first post-college job, I worked as a paralegal for a law firm representing cigarette manufacturer RJR. Along with coworkers, I reviewed and coded thousands of company documents. Most were painfully boring, but occasionally we’d come across something juicy, like hate mail received in response to a blatantly sexist Joe Camel Spring Break ad.

On rare occasions, we’d even come across a legitimately incriminating document, which we turned over to our superiors for closer examination—or, as we joked, immediate shredding. But I never saw anything like what scientist Victor DeNoble describes in the incendiary new documentary Addiction Incorporated, which opens March 9 in Atlanta.

Growing up, DeNoble seemed an unlikely candidate to become one of the most important whistle-blowers of the last 25 years. He struggled to graduate high school and planned to become a plumber. But then he was diagnosed with a treatable learning disability, and as DeNoble puts it, it turns out he wasn’t so dumb after all. Soon after, he started studying science.

In 1980, cigarette powerhouse Philip Morris came calling. Displeased with how its product was killing off customers, it wanted DeNoble to run a series of experiments geared toward developing a cigarette that was still addictive, only without irritating side effects like lung cancer and emphysema.

DeNoble, thinking his work might improve public health, took the job heading Philip Morris’ top-secret labs, where he ran a series of sophisticated experiments involving rats and nicotine. His findings were fascinating, and DeNoble was eager to publish them a medical journal.

Needless to say, Philip Morris put the kibosh on that idea, and promptly fired DeNoble. Flash forward 10 years later, and journalists are beginning to expose shady goings-on behind the doors of Big Tobacco. With lawyers and politicians circling, will DeNoble finally get his chance to reveal his findings to the world?

Big Tobacco’s duplicitous actions and the related lawsuits were big news in the mid-‘90s, so you might think you know all there is to know about this story. But In Addiction Incorporated, director Charles Evans Jr. aims to go both deeper and wider, using DeNoble’s insider knowledge to reveal startling details about what the tobacco companies really knew—and when they knew it.

To supplement DeNoble’s narrative, Evans Jr. assembles a sprawling mix of scientists, lawyers, politicians and journalists that recount how a combination of legal action, political pressure, news exposes and whistleblower testimony led to a tipping point after which cigarette companies were never the same.

Evans Jr. takes a “talking heads” approach that can be made or broken depending on its subjects’ appeal. It works here, because DeNoble’s down-to-earth, self-deprecating manner makes the science go down easier. As the film’s scope widens, it gets a little less compelling, though the southern lawyers give Addiction Incorporated a late adrenaline shot. It’s fun to watch the working-class New Yorker and some good ol’ boys from Louisiana stick it to Big Tobacco.

To break up the interview footage, Addiction Incorporated makes frequent use of animation, a device that eventually wears out its welcome. Still, aided by DeNoble’s live-wire narration and some choice archive footage—check out the classic testimony of cigarette heads talking about how their product isn’t addictive, no way!—he’s able to tie together a detailed story without it becoming drier than a week-old cigarette butt.

As Addiction Incorporated reaches its end, you may find yourself wondering just how many classified cigarette documents made their way to the shredder. How fortunate, then, that DeNoble’s research and testimony lived to see the light of day.

“Addiction Incorporated” opens in Atlanta on March 9 at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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