Big Tobacco was brought down not by crusading lawmakers or damning medical research, but by a secret quest for a more addictive cigarette.
Addiction Incorporated, a documentary 15 years in the making that will premiere in Washington on Friday evening, lays bare the industry’s inadvertent self-immolation. By seeking to make a more addictive product, the industry furnished lawmakers, lawyers, and journalists with incontrovertible evidence of tobacco’s baleful effects.
Directed by Charles Evans Jr.—who produced Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film The Aviator—the film follows the career of Victor J. DeNoble, a psychologist-turned-activist who single-handedly pinioned a Goliath.
The first member of his family to go to college, DeNoble was a naïf with a talent for experimental psychology. After earning a doctorate from Adelphi University—which he selected because “it was the first one in the book and it happened to be very close to my house”—he joined a laboratory at the University of Minnesota.
One day in 1979, Philip Morris approached DeNoble about a job. “They looked [at] me and said, ‘This guy’s kind of young and naïve—he’s the first person [in his family] to go to college.’ I think they thought they could control me,” he said.
He rebuffed the initial overture, but ultimately accepted a job as head of the company’s Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory.
With the help of Paul C. Mele, another experimental psychologist trained at Adelphi, DeNoble chemically modified nicotine in an effort to reduce the risk of heart disease without sacrificing one iota of tobacco’s addictive power. To gauge the potency of these compounds, he outfitted rat cages with a lever allowing the test subject to “self-administer” nicotine. In the process, he proved what his employer had always denied—that cigarettes are addictive.
DeNoble’s research—culminating in an academic paper titled “Nicotine as a Positive Reinforcer in Rats”—was promptly recognized by Philip Morris as incriminating and potentially disastrous for the industry. As director Evans explains in the film, “Philip Morris Research Center was put under microscopic scrutiny by [the corporation’s] lawyers, who wanted to clean house and make sure that no [more] evidence was being produced.”
DeNoble and Mele were summarily fired and their laboratory was shut down. Ten years would go by before David Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, declared his intention to investigate his agency’s jurisdiction over tobacco products.
After that, a once-invincible industry wilted before a vengeful public. The CEOs of the seven largest tobacco companies—the “Seven Dwarfs,” as they were known—were summoned to Capitol Hill and harangued by members of the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, including then-Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
All seven testified that, to the best of their knowledge, nicotine was not addictive. Amid a fusillade of questions, the CEO of Philip Morris, William I. Campbell, agreed to release DeNoble from his confidentiality agreement.
On April 28, 1994, DeNoble testified that Philip Morris executives had told him they believed his experiments could bring down the entire industry. “We were told that the data we were generating … would not be favorable in [antitobacco] litigation,” he said. Asked about “the character and the trustworthiness” of the tobacco industry, DeNoble acknowledged that “it’s difficult to watch [the ‘Seven Dwarfs’ testify] and to feel good about what happened to us.”
Earlier this week, DeNoble and Evans were joined by Waxman, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, and representatives of the American Lung Association for an advance screening of Addiction Incorporated, which debuts on Friday at the E Street Cinema.
In remarks before the showing, Waxman recalled Big Tobacco’s stranglehold on virtually every facet of modern life. “Tobacco companies sponsored everything—programs on television, sporting events, congressional travel,” he said.
“Every time we ever had a hearing, [the industry] would produce a scientific witness who would say, ‘It is not clear whether there’s a connection between smoking and these diseases.’ It wasn’t until Victor DeNoble testified before [Congress] that we learned … the industry knew that the nicotine was addictive [and] had been working on ways to manipulate the nicotine to keep people smoking.”
This article appears in the Feb. 3, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.