Arts & Events

Addiction Incorporated: The Other Insider
Opens January 20 at the Shattuck Cinemas

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Tuesday January 17, 2012 - 05:50:00 PM
Director Chris Evans, Jr. and whistle-blower Victor DeNoble
Director Chris Evans, Jr. and whistle-blower Victor DeNoble
Big Tobacco blows smoke and makes a killing. Still from Addition Incorporated.
Big Tobacco blows smoke and makes a killing. Still from Addition Incorporated.

In the 1999 movie, The Insider, Russell Crowe starred as Jeff Wigand, a former tobacco industry researcher for Brown & Williams, who dares to reveal the dangers of nicotine to Berkeley-based 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman.

This week, Berkeley-grad Charles Evans Jr.,'s Addiction Incorporated hits the Big Screen to tell a parallel story of Philip Morris researcher Victor DeNoble, the whistleblower whose revelations triggered the Congressional hearings and class action lawsuits that forever tarred the reputation of Big Tobacco. 

Addiction Incorporated is a prodigious historical documentary bursting with brilliant interviews with key players from every level of the scientific-media-political-corporate playing field. Addition Inc., reveals the nearly untouchable power of large immoral corporations and demonstrates the ability of committed individuals to insist on justice, even when confronted with the most daunting of odds. Archival footage of historic Congressional hearings is expertly edited into the flowing storyline and, where archival footage is nonexistent or inadequate, the filmmakers have invested generously in "recreations" — including an astonishing scene in a commercial passenger plane when passengers were still allowed to cloud the cabin with billows of cigarette smoke. 

In this beautifully polished documentary (Evans' directorial debut), DeNoble comes across as an incredibly engaging guy with the natural charisma of a movie star. DeNoble also turns out to be a very smart fellow, indeed. Fresh out of college, Phillip Morris sought him out. With all the intrigue of the CIA recruiting a potential double-agent, DeNoble was picked up in a limousine, flown to an expensive hotel and treated to an expensive meal by a mysterious corporate agent who began the conversation with: "First let me tell you about yourself." He then rattled off the names more than 20 members of DeNoble's family and provided detailed information on the personal background of each individual. "I had no idea how he discovered all that information," DeNoble recalls. But he was impressed. 

Philip Morris (PM) was looking for a bright young scientist to head a covert research project. Despite repeated public denials that nicotine was addictive, PM knew the chemical was not only habit-forming but that it was causing smokers to die prematurely from lung and heart disease. 

DeNoble's assignment was to find a replacement for nicotine — a chemical that was just as addictive but without nicotine's lethal side effects. It was never a humanitarian decision. PM was simply facing the fact that addicted smokers would buy more cigarettes if they lived longer. There was profit in extending the customers' longevity. 

DeNoble was hired to conduct animal experiments in a secret lab hidden even from fellow PM staff. Working with rats, DeNoble discovered how to administer nicotine at the same levels that human smokers were subjected to. (In its first half, Addiction Incorporated features several long patches of beautifully rendered — and somewhat creepy — animations of rats that slowly evolve into images of humans dragging rat-like tales behind them.) 

DeNoble initially undertook his research in the spirit of altruism. He saw his role as producing a product that, while addictive, was healthier and would save lives. 

DeNoble proved that rats (whose brains are remarkable similar to humans in this regard) could be trained to push a trigger that released pleasurable doses of nicotine. Once addicted, the rats would push the lever up to 90 times a day! But when DeNoble asked to publish these findings in a scientific journal, PM refused. 

Then DeNoble had an insight that would transform the cigarette industry — at least as far as PM was concerned. What if, DeNoble wondered, there were other chemicals in tobacco that also contributed to the addictive response in smokers? He began to experiment with the scores of chemicals lurking in the leaves until he hit upon one called acetaldehyde. 

When he introduced acetaldehyde to his rats, he discovered that the chemical was twice as addictive as nicotine — and it did not have the harmful side effects. 

This was the Holy Grail and it should have been the crowning achievement of DeNoble's work. But DeNoble tried one more experiment. When he fed his rats a mixture of nicotine and acetaldehyde he observed that the combo turned the rats from "lazy addicts" into "active addicts" whose craving for a cigarette high more than doubled! 

Faced with this discovery, PM's top ranks had a moral dilemma: (1) Swap acetaldehyde for nicotine to produce a mildly addictive product that wouldn't kill smokers or (2) Promote a new product that would be just as deadly but twice as addictive. Being tobacco company officials, they quickly chose profits over body counts and DeNoble's secret discovery gave PM a decisive competitive edge over the rest of the industry. 

While PM's advertizing promoted its cigarettes as a "lifestyle" choice identified with cowboys and the great outdoors, PM's executives clearly understood that their business model had devolved into a simple matter of selling an addictive drug. 

Eventually, when a series of New Jersey lawsuits threaten to put PM's research center under the spotlight, company lawyers recommended that DeNoble's research not even be acknowledged. Of particular concern was a research paper entitled "Nicotine as a Positive Reinforcer in Rats" that was to have been presented at a session of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1983. 

"They told me I had to withdraw the paper," DeNoble recalls with disbelief. "What do you mean? I said. I grew up in the 60s. We protested everything and I'm used to resisting authority." If he challenged his bosses at PM, DeNoble realized, "they could ruin my career. But, if I didn't resist them, what's my career worth?" 

So DeNoble showed up at the APA meeting's poster session and stood defiantly before a blank poster. Since the title of the paper had already been published in the program, people looked at the blank poster and were able "to put two-and-two together." 

PM President Shep Pollack soon dropped by DeNoble's lab and, in the presence of an attorney, demanded to see the rats desperately pawing the nicotine lever. "Does this mean nicotine is addictive?" Pollack asked. Before DeNoble could respond, Pollack's lawyer lunged forward and shouted: "Don't answer the question!" 

DeNoble and his research team were "called upstairs" and told their research was no longer needed — "Go downstairs and kill your rats. These studies will stop. Turn over your keys. This lab is closed." 

It would be many years before the story reached the desks of the ABC investigative reporters looking into the nicotine question. But, after years of research, the reporters were dumbfounded to be suddenly told their investigation would never air. "No one is interested in this story," the higher-ups informed them. 

That all changed when FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler announced an investigation into the health issues of tobacco smoking. "Smoke Screen," ABC's Day One exposé, aired on February 24, 1994. 

Addiction Inc. offers revealing interviews with 20 of the key players in the extended drama — researchers, politicians, lawyers and even some former tobacco company executives. Recalling the ABC broadcast, PM General Counsel and Senior VP Steve Parrish tells the camera: "It was devastating. Our stock took a huge hit…. Regulators were calling for hearings." 

Rep. Henry Waxman, the relentless chair of the subcommittee hearings on tobacco safety, recalls how, at the time, no one had a clue that PM was intentionally manipulating nicotine levels to increase addiction. The industry had insisted nicotine was included only for "flavor and taste." Looking back, Waxman has high praise for DeNoble: "Victor DeNoble was the first whistleblower…. he was the first one." 

The revelation that the industry knew nicotine was addictive — and had relied on that knowledge to stoke sales — changed the debate on tobacco. It was no longer just a health question: cigarette companies were now revealed as having the same moral standards as back-alley drug dealers. 

PM responded to the ABC expose by filing a $10 billion "libel" lawsuit against the network. Eventually — to the chagrin of the network's investigative reporting team — ABC offered a public "apology" to Philip Morris for airing the program. 

But it was too late. Congressional hearings were underway and, under the glare of publicity, PM was forced to agree to let DeNoble testify about what he knew. 

ABC reporters would subsequently get a call from a source who delivered "the Rosetta Stone of the tobacco industry" — internal documents going back to the 1940s proving the companies knew about nicotine's addictive properties. Their euphoria was short-lived, however. ABC lawyers showed up to confiscate the documents and order the reporters to destroy their notes. Pulitzer-Prizewinning reporter Walt Bogdanich bitterly recalls being told: "There is no news organization in this world that will touch these documents, report on them, put them in the paper or put them on the air." 

The ABC reporters then did something extraordinary (and professionally very difficult): they put their source in contact with a competing news organization — the New York Times. The Times went on to produce a blockbuster series that began with a story headlined: "Cigarette Makers Debated the Risks They Denied." 

Soon, all seven industry officials who had sworn under oath that nicotine was not addictive, had resigned, retired or quietly vanished from the scene. 

Up until that point, the tobacco industry had taken smug pride in the fact that it had never lost a lawsuit. A class-action lawyer named Wendell Gauthier changed that when Victor DeNoble became his expert witness. 

Gauthier's Castano et al. v. American Tobacco lawsuit for compensatory damages was filed in nearly every state in the Union. On the ropes, Big Tobacco decided to cut its losses by "reaching out" to the State Attorneys General. The final settlement of the Castano lawsuit involved huge financial payments by Big Tobacco but no federal regulation of the industry. 

DeNoble saw through the smoke and bluntly told the Washington press corps that he was personally opposed to the settlement. 

Shortly after that outburst, DeNoble recalls, a tobacco industry rep offered him a job: "$5,000 a day for the next six months." Recalling the conversation before Evans' camera, DeNoble gleefully repeats his reply: "You pricks can't buy me!" 

In 1996, US Attorney General Janet Reno prosecuted the tobacco industry for "fraud and deceit" using the government's RICO statutes and won the biggest lawsuit in the history of the Justice Department. The DOJ's withering condemnation of the industry was upheld by the Supreme Court, officially putting Big Tobacco in the ranks of organized crime's most notorious drug peddlers. 

On June 22, 2009, President Barack Obama signed legislation giving the government the power to act against tobacco companies that endanger the public health and giving the FDA the power to demand non-addictive products. 

After 30 years of work, DeNoble now says he no longer believes it is possible to make "a safe cigarette." Today he is constantly on the road, crisscrossing the country to talk to students about the dangers of tobacco addiction. The closing scenes of Addition Incorporated are filled with close-ups of children's faces as they listen to DeNoble's warnings. Is heart-wrenching. You will pray for these children and curse the well-paid executives who profit from their addition. It is both ironic and fitting that DeNoble's work is funded by money from the tobacco company settlement, which requires funding anti-tobacco health education in all 50 states. 

Every day 3,000 kids become smokers and 1,000 will eventually die from the effects of tobacco smoke. DeNoble claims that he takes his message to about 300,000 kids each year. Thanks to Addiction Incorporated, he will now reach many more.