CINESPECT : Ratting Out Big Tobacco

December 12, 2011 : By Charles H. Meyer

“Addiction Incorporated,” Charles Evans, Jr.’s documentary about the research scientist Victor DeNoble, who exposed the tobacco industry’s successful but secret scheme to make cigarettes more addictive, opens with a well-edited but unnecessary montage of Super-8 footage narrated with a voiceover by DeNoble explaining that he came from a humble background, was thought to be unintelligent until he was diagnosed with dyslexia, was the first person in his family to attend college, and was hired by Philip Morris after receiving his doctorate in behavioral psychology. Although the film’s through-line is DeNoble’s journey from tobacco industry-employed research scientist to outspoken anti-tobacco activist, some time–not to mention the opportunity to open the film with more of a bang–is wasted as the film plods through irrelevant details of DeNoble’s childhood before finally arriving at the first moment in his story that is relevant to the film–his employment in 1980 by one of the biggest and most profitable tobacco companies in the world to perform the kinds of experimentation that the industry had agreed–for its own good but definitely not for the public’s–to stay away from: using rats, whose brains respond to drugs in ways remarkably similar to our own, to study the effects of nicotine on the human brain.

What DeNoble and his research partner Paul Mele were charged with accomplishing was the alteration of the nicotine used in cigarettes such that its effects on the human heart would be less detrimental. In time, they were able to synthesize a variation of the nicotine molecule, two-prime methyl-nicotine, which produced in tobacco users the same pleasant effects of conventional nicotine without its usual strains on the heart. The researchers also succeeded in singling out, from the thousands of chemicals found in cigarette smoke, a chemical called acetaldehyde which enhances and strengthens the effects of nicotine on the brain.

DeNoble and Mele presented their findings to their bosses, who were much less interested in two-prime methyl-nicotine and its potential for the manufacture of “safe” cigarettes, than they were in acetaldehyde, whose presence in tobacco products could be increased to create a more satisfying and more addictive product. Evidently, Philip Morris cared less about keeping its customers alive than about increasing their degree of addiction. Part of the problem was that getting the FDA to approve a new nicotine molecule would require far more time, effort, money, and paperwork than simply getting the FDA to allow Philip Morris to increase the amount of a chemical that was already present in its tobacco products.

Presumably blinded with elation at the prospect of making a killing off of the “new and improved” cigarettes that only Philip Morris knew how to manufacture, the company’s executives agreed to let DeNoble and Mele publish their research findings in the prestigious journal “Psychopharmacology.” They were also set to present these findings at an important scientific conference. But before they could go public with their groundbreaking discoveries, a few lawsuits directed at tobacco companies scared Philip Morris into forcing DeNoble and Mele to kill their article, kill their rats, and kill their research. The company saw no use in giving ammunition to plaintiff lawyers or to sharing Philip Morris’s knowledge of the effects of acetaldehyde with the rest of the industry.

Ten years passed. Then, in 1994, ABC News broke the story that Big Tobacco had known all along that nicotine was an addictive drug. Before long, a Congressional hearing led by Representative Henry Waxman was convened, the CEOs of the seven biggest tobacco companies were subpoenaed, and, under oath, all seven explicitly denied that nicotine was an addictive drug. Victor DeNoble, until then under a gag order from his former employer, was officially released. A series of massive class action suits, masterminded by New Orleans attorney Wendell Gauthier, were filed in every U.S. state against the tobacco companies before ending in a huge out-of-court settlement. DeNoble initially worked with the army of plaintiff attorneys involved but soon left to pursue a career as an anti-tobacco activist who speaks to about 300,000 schoolchildren a year about the dangers of tobacco.

Besides being highly informative and rhetorically effective, “Addiction Incorporated” is an exquisitely and cleverly put-together documentary. Its many dramatic reenactments, which help us, for instance, imagine (or remember) the days when people smoked on airplanes, are of an unusually high production value. Also quite effective are the animated sequences involving beautiful young people with the tails and noses of rats, who float along a tropical river on wooden rafts–an engaging metaphor in which the rats represent cigarette smokers, the rafts are their habits, and the river is dopamine, one of the neurotransmitters whose levels in the brain are increased by nicotine.

“Addiction Incorporated” does not exactly tell a new story, but it is nonetheless a necessary film in that it skillfully documents the work of an under-recognized hero, Victor DeNoble, without whom our country would very likely not have progressed nearly as far as it has in its war on cigarettes. The tobacco industry continues to enjoy the right to produce and profit from a product that eventually kills a third of its users and thereby incurs a heavy burden of health care expenses on the nation and its taxpayers. But lawsuits continue to be brought against Big Tobacco, and there is hope that in time, the industry will be sued, taxed, and legislated completely out of existence.

“Addiction Incorporated” opens Wednesday, December 14 at Film Forum.