Is Smoke-Free Documentary
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Years ago I attended Wake Forest University, located in Winston-Salem, NC, home of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The town had the whiff of tobacco in the air. During the winter, for some horticultural reason, the campus grounds were covered with a mulch of tobacco stems. When it snowed, the slush was as brown as if it had been poured from a spitoon. The students used to joke that this was the only college where you could get lung cancer just by walking across the campus.
We’ve always suspected tobacco was bad for our health, even though the tobacco companies’ didn’t make such research available to the public. And we knew it was addictive, simply from watching our friends fail to break their nicotine habits.
When Philip Morris hired Victor DeNoble as a drug researcher, he didn’t expect the outcome that he encountered. He isolated the ingredient in tobacco that made it addictive. This was good news for Marlboro, for it could now make cigarettes into an even more gotta-have joystick. But that elation turned around when DeNoble lived up to his name and led a national campaign to regulate this deadly industry. His 1994 Congressional testimony helped establish the first federal regulations on tobacco products.
“Addiction Incorporated” – currently puffing away at the Tropic Cinema – is a documentary about this early whistleblower.
Directed by Charles Evans, Jr., this film gives us DeNoble’s transition from scientist to advocate and educator. Not as dramatic as “The Insider,” that Russell Crowe movie about whistleblowing tobacco exec Jeffery Wigand, this documentary takes a more educational approach.
The doc’s obligatory talking-head interviews are not intrusive, thanks to Victor DeNoble’s entertaining style, honed in the classroom, educating young people about the dangers of smoking.
Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop once had me fly to Washington to discuss his plans to publish a health newsletter. The bearded physician was among the first to warn the public about the addictive nature of tobacco and as head of the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps instituted warning labels on cigarette packs. He told me he was pushing for a smoke-free America by 2000 – a year that’s come and gone without success. Although many smoke-free environments have been legislated, a 2007 Gallup poll reported that only 54% of Americans favored smoke-free restaurants, 34% favored smoke-free hotel rooms, and 29% favored smoke-free bars – making Dr. Koop’s goal difficult.
Victor DeNoble’s goal was simply “doing good with science.” He’s done that. Not only by refuting the 7 tobacco company CEO’s sworn testimony that nicotine wasn’t addictive, but in going on to educate kids about the dangers of drugs.
“It began in 1979 when I was contacted by Philip Morris Tobacco,” he tells the story. “They said they were havings some problems, maybe I might help them … that nicotine causes about 138,000 people to die every year from cardiovascular activity and brainstrokes. They wanted to remove nicotine from cigarettes and replace it with a drug that was equally addictive but a drug that wouldn’t cause the heart problems and brainstrokes.
“My job was to find a molecule that the rat’s brain would say, I like it, and the rat’s heart wouldn’t have any cardivascular problem with it.”
He did, but then he blew the whistle. To some, he was a turncoat; to others, a cult hero.
If “Addiction Incorporated” has a flaw, it’s in not being as brave as its protagonist. Victor DeNoble stood up to the tobacco industry. Glossing over details about shifting Congressional supporters and industry-friendly compromises, the film settles for a lightweight portrait of DeNoble, with a CliffsNotes approach to the true topic. The word cancer is not part of the film’s vocabulary. As the young director says, “I’m not a crusader.”
DeNoble discovered the link between tobacco and the pleasure center of the brain. Documentaries need to find their own links.