Potent docu “Addiction Incorporated” chronicles the long and tortured road traveled to establish federal regulation of the tobacco industry — a cause finally won largely due to the revelation that some manufacturers long had proof cigarettes were addictive, despite decades of public denial. Producer Charles Evans Jr.’s directorial debut finds an engrossing suspense angle in the involvement of Victor DeNoble, an idealistic scientist-turned-whistleblower whose suppressed corporate research became the bombshell catalyst in that struggle. Strong reviews should help the pic in its qualifying run starting Dec. 14 at Gotham’s Film Forum, with other cities following in January.
The genial DeNoble, the principal interviewee among many here, was a working-class East Coaster considered none-too-bright until a college course prompted the discovery that undiagnosed dyslexia had been hampering his academic performance all along. By 1976, he’d earned a doctorate in experimental psychology and was recruited by Philip Morris four years later as a senior drug researcher.
Told, “We don’t kill people; nicotine does,” at his job interview, DeNoble figured he’d nabbed a dream post awarding healthy corporate paychecks for science that actually benefited people. He and fellow researcher Paul Mele were essentially tasked with trying to find less harmful alternatives to nicotine as cigarette ingredients.
However, when their lab-rat studies revealed not only that nicotine was patently addicting, but a second element (Acetaldehyde) even more so, the company figured it could get more bang for its buck by upping rather than reducing the dosage of the latter. An incriminating results paper planned for scholarly publication got yanked under pressure. Ordered to destroy remaining rats and other evidence of his findings, DeNoble was then abruptly fired.
A decade later in the mid-’90s, ABC began sniffing around rumors that the tobacco industry — still vigorously resisting government regulation — had actually worked in secret to maintain addictive levels while denying such addiction existed. The industry used lawsuits, spying on FDA investigators, political palm-greasing and other tactics to keep the lid on this explosive truth. But once Congress released DeNoble from his former employer’s airtight confidentiality agreement, the cat was out of the bag.
Once the chronicle reaches industry-shaming Congressional hearings and other still-familiar events, it grows less exciting, if only because the earlier parts, casting DeNoble as humble protagonist in a then-secret battle between personal ethics and corporate malfeasance, offer such compelling real-life drama.
Pic’s most adventuresome leap is the use of impressive, even poignant animated sequences in which anthropomorphized rats experience the highs and eventually fatal lows of substance addiction.
Assembly is first-rate down the line.