“I was never a very good student,” says Victor DeNoble. A projector sounds as you see home movies: Victor as a baby in his mother’s arms outside a home with a lawn, later pulled on a scooter toy by his father, who smiles broadly. He grew up in Valley Stream, in Nassau County, where, he recalls, people were World War II veterans who worked as auto mechanics or plumbers, like his dad. His father hadn’t finished school and “could barely read, but Victor went on—after learning he was dyslexic—to become a research scientist. “Once I could read,” he says, “I realized I wasn’t as dumb as everybody thought I was.”
As he reminisces at the start of Addiction Incorporated, DeNoble sounds like lots of baby boomers, kids who grew up feeling safe, who went to school and then on to successful careers. But his story takes a turn, one that has to do with his realization that he “wasn’t as dumb as everybody thought I was.” In 1980, DeNoble took a job with Philip Morris, where he studied cigarettes’ addictive properties, more specifically, the behavioral pharmacology of nicotine. For the first part of Charles Evans Jr.‘s documentary, which opens at Film Forum on 14 December (with appearances by Evans and DeNoble on 12/14, 12/15, and 12/17), DeNoble remembers that he believed what his employer (which he initially considers “the greatest company in the world”) told him, namely, that he was doing research “for the public good.” But soon the film counters his story with other, less sanguine commentaries, as when Los Angeles Times reporter Myron Levin notes, “Philip Morris always had this very intrigued, conflicted attitude about scientific research,” which led to “evasions and lies over the years.”
You already know the basic trajectory of these evasions and lies, that Philip Morris and the rest of Big Tobacco knew their product was addictive and made loads of money because of that. DeNoble details how they knew, and how he and fellow researcher Paul Mele were fired when they 1) discovered that lab rats became addicted to nicotine, and 2) wanted to publish their results. In 1983, when he was forced to withdraw his paper, “Nicotine as a Positive Reinforcer in Rats,” from a professional conference, DeNoble remembers standing by his display table with a blank poster: “That was the worst scientific day of my entire life,” he says now.
At this point, DeNoble’s storytelling shifts into another gear. Feeling betrayed as a scientist and worse, he also saw something else going on: the executives at Philip Morris weren’t just selling a dangerous product. They were drug dealers. The film helps you see into his frustration and increasing anger, with corny animated rats (more like people with long noses and tails) looking reckless and addicted, and animated maps of the states catching fire.
You may know, at least generally, the outlines of the history that follows, that in 1994 seven Big Tobacco executives lied to Congress, that they go on to evade and lie for years after, and that it was only in 2009 that Barack Obama signed into law the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. As recounted here, this history begins to emerge as journalists and investigators begin to get interested—and especially once they find out DeNoble wants to talk. ABC News’ Walt Bogdanovich and Keith Summa recall their reporting for the news show Day One, and FDA Commissioner David Kessler and agents Gary Light and Tom Doyle detail their quests for information and also, witnesses who will speak out. When at last DeNoble agrees to talk with the agents, he’s so unsure of who’s whom and who means to trick him that he insists they meet in a public restaurant, because, he says, he felt that “I needed to control what was going to happen. I checked out an escape route just in case I needed one, I even checked out the bathroom.” When they sat down at the table and their jackets came open to reveal they wore holsters, he says, was even more worried: “They had guns. My radar went haywire.”
DeNoble is something of an ideal subject here, heroic and self-effacing, wry and still visibly aggravated off. As much as he distrusts the series of men in suits who ask for his help or make promises, he agrees to testify before Henry Waxman’s congressional committee in 1994. (This after a meeting with Republican Congressman Tom Bliley and his staff,” which he describes as “a horrible meeting. They weren’t interested in science, they weren’t interested in what I knew. They were interested in threatening me. Bliley told me that if I appeared before this committee they could ask me anything on national TV.”) He also agrees to work with attorney Wendell Gauthier in class action suits brought in a series of states (in New Orleans, 2004, the jury awarded the state $591 million in the class-action lawsuit, Scott versus American Tobacco).
As much as DeNoble’s story reveals the effects of malevolence and greed, Addiction Incorporated works hard to underline his triumph, one premised on exposure and disclosure. The film closes on his efforts to educate students, returning to that first story he told, when he was assessed and dismissed. His teachers thought he’d be a plumber like his dad. Today, he says, he gives kids “information which helps them defend their decision to say, ‘No, I’m not going to change my brain.’”