Back in the early ’80s, the tobacco giant Philip Morris hired scientists to work on the industry’s equivalent of “clean coal”—a pie-in-the-sky initiative to create a healthier nicotine cigarette that was no less addictive. It sounds like a smart play, an opportunity for the company to dodge the coming firestorm over its product’s unambiguous connection to heart and lung disease. Yet by employing an in-house research team, Philip Morris executives lost plausible deniability; they could no longer claim ignorance about cigarettes’ addictive qualities, and, by extension, their own deliberate effort to make them as addictive as possible. The mostly solid documentary Addiction Incorporated focuses on one of those in-house scientists, Victor DeNoble, who became one the earliest and most important whistleblowers against Big Tobacco. And given the industry’s notorious ability to crush lawsuits, his apostasy risked a very steep cost.
Director Charles Evans, Jr.—trivia alert: nephew of Paramount bigwig Robert Evans—attempts an Errol Morris-like mélange of stylistic tricks to illustrate DeNoble’s long journey, including silly animated sequences and cheapo reenactments, but the film is better off when it plays it straight. DeNoble is an ideal subject, a riveting, passionate storyteller who witnessed industry shenanigans first-hand a full decade before they were exposed to the public. DeNoble talks about his time at Philip Morris as a case of thwarted (albeit naïve) idealism: He couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make cigarettes safer, even if such a thing wasn’t really possible. His team’s experiments on rats yielded incredible results, with the ironic effect of making cigarettes even more addictive, but the company ultimately refused to allow its scientists to publish, and abruptly shut down DeNoble’s lab.
The heart of Addiction Incorporated is what happened after DeNoble was canned and later emerged as a key witness in news reports, courtrooms, and Congressional subcommittees. Bound by a non-disclosure agreement, DeNoble operated like a character in a real-life John Grisham thriller, and Evans supports his hair-raising tale with corroborations from fellow researchers, FDA officials, and even Philip Morris’ General Counsel. Once the film gets past the now-iconic moment of “The Big Seven” tobacco CEOs appearing before Congress in 1994—all claiming falsely, under oath, that nicotine is not addictive—it slides into a long, heavy-handed denouement that feels too much like a PSA. At this point, it doesn’t take a montage of schoolchildren’s faces to make an audience of adults acknowledge that smoking is bad for you.