“Addiction Incorporated” and the Man who Blew the Whistle
by Justin Senkbile
As a smoker who's just recently begun considering kicking the habit, I'll admit I was a little anxious as I approached Charles Evans Jr's documentary, “Addiction Incorporated”. Imagining some kind of traumatic, tobacco-stained version of “Food Inc.” (images of grotesque lungs, interviews with emphysema patients – that sort of thing), I was surprised to find this film is something quite different, though no less troubling.
Not exactly an anti-smoking film, and not really even an expose of big tobacco (though it provides more than enough ammunition for either cause), “Addiction Incorporated” simply and compellingly traces the story of one tobacco company's in-house nicotine research, and the domino-effect it caused over the next twenty-odd years.
Our principal figure is an affable scientist named Victor DeNoble. Hired to run a secret lab within Phillip Morris in the 80's, DeNoble made some earth shaking discoveries about the way nicotine interacts with one of the many other chemicals present in cigarettes. Not only did Phillip Morris keep the research from publication, they used it to further manipulate the chemistry of their products. In short, DeNoble inadvertently showed big tobacco how to make their products more addictive.
He and a few colleagues were sacked shortly thereafter. But journalists caught wind of the story, and after many uphill battles and several dramatic congressional hearings in the mid-nineties, the unbreakable power and influence of big tobacco finally began to wane. DeNoble became known as the first insider to blow the whistle on the tobacco industry. Even if you didn't catch the TV coverage at the time, the story may feel familiar, as this is the one Russel Crowe, Al Pacino and director Michael Mann brilliantly dramatized in 1999's “The Insider”.
“Addiction Incorporated” has an awful lot of animation in the first half, an ingredient added to most non-fiction films these days, and rarely to good effect. Here, some of it works quite well, in the form of graphs and charts that illustrate the concepts DeNoble is describing. But there's quite a lot of needless junk too, which serves only to disrupt the already riveting narrative in progress. It's the second half where we really get into the good stuff, as Evans serves up a wealth of archive footage of the hearings, and features plenty of talking heads, including a former Phillip Morris attorney.
Information on the health hazards of smoking is so ubiquitous these days (thanks in large part to the story detailed here) that it's striking the way “Addiction Incorporated” hardly touches on it at all. DeNoble talks a lot about the science of addiction, and of nicotine in particular, but this ends up being a corporate integrity story, as opposed to a public health one. Smoking is framed here as a moral issue, exactly like the ones that keep you recycling or buying organic produce, for example.
That's right: no graphic photos or detailed health statistics here. “Addiction Incorporated” generates outrage simply by detailing the actions of a few very powerful companies.
“Addiction Incorporated” is playing at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, 13th and R streets, through February 9th.