San Francisco Bay Guardian : Addiction Incorporated

January 17, 2012

Charles Evans Jr.’s documentary revisits the history of the tobacco industry’s deceptions, machinations, and other nefarious feats of profit-shielding through the story of Victor DeNoble, an industry scientist turned whistle-blower who was hired by Philip Morris in 1980 to help create a “safer” cigarette — i.e., one that didn’t contain nicotine. The material upsides of developing a product not then known to cause 138,000 strokes and heart attacks a year were clear enough — as one scientist puts it, “dead people don’t buy cigarettes.” But when DeNoble and his colleagues, in the course of their research, developed definitive proof that nicotine has “reinforcing” — a.k.a. “addictive” — properties, the company’s executives and legal counsel recognized a risk to the bottom line that far outweighed the benefits. The lab was shut down, DeNoble lost his job, and the literature generated by the project was stifled. These and subsequent events are related by a long, winding parade of talking heads broken up by archival footage; reenactments; a series of animations featuring hybridized rat-human addicts floating on a river of dopamine; and — as we enter the mid-’90s and the tobacco companies become a target of the FDA, the media, Congress, and a mammoth alliance of 51 law firms — footage from press conferences and hearings before the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment. The film’s narrative has some gaping holes, but given recent legal setbacks to the FDA’s attempts to regulate the industry, it’s a good reminder that the tobacco behemoth can only be corralled through the energetic efforts of a conscientious, vigilant media and political bodies courageous and committed enough to use and hone the regulating tools at their disposal. (1:42) (Rapoport)