Addiction Incorporated: A Tobacco Whistle-blower and the Filmmaker Who Told His Story
Feb 8, 2012, 3:42 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth
A new film, Addiction Incorporated, gives viewers a look at the tobacco industry and nicotine addiction from the perspective of Victor DeNoble, a former industry scientist turned whistle-blower. DeNoble testified before Congress in 1994 that his research proved nicotine was addictive, contradicting the sworn testimony otherwise of the industry’s chief executives. His testimony helped fuel lawsuits against the industry and contributed to eventual enactment of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. This 2009 law gave the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco products and marketing.
Watch the trailer for Addiction Incorporated:
NewPublicHealth spoke with DeNoble and the documentary’s filmmaker, Charles Evans, Jr., about their story.
NewPublicHealth: Charles, how long was the film in development and what prompted you to do the story in this way?
Charles Evans: I saw Victor on C-SPAN and was greatly interested in his cloak and dagger life at Philip Morris and I wanted to know more. I’m a film producer and thought it would make a good movie and actively sought him out, got to know more about him and about the work that he went on to do afterwards. In the late ‘90s he essentially just started talking to kids and to me that became the story. The story became a man who was determined to do good with science and the tobacco industry.
NPH: Victor, can you summarize the findings of your research at Philip Morris?
Victor DeNoble: When I went to work at Philip Morris, my job was to find a substitute drug for nicotine because nicotine causes cardiovascular problems. They wanted to find a drug that was equally addictive but something that wouldn’t cause heart problems, but in order to do that we had to determine how addictive nicotine was. So we used classical rat models that determined drug addictions because rat brains are very similar to people brains, and we determined that nicotine was an addictive drug and that rats would work for it and it was not much different than other drugs of abuse like morphine, cocaine and heroin.
And then in a very surprising finding, around 1982 we discovered that there was a second drug in tobacco smoke that also was addictive and interactive with nicotine—and that drug is called acetaldehyde. What was interesting was that when you mixed acetaldehyde with nicotine, nicotine became more addictive.
NPH: Cigarettes have been called a finely tuned drug delivery device. Can you talk about what that means and how cigarettes are manufactured to maximize the delivery and impact of nicotine?
Victor DeNoble: Nicotine is actually vaporized—when you puff on a cigarette it becomes a droplet and then a gas and it goes into your lungs, and it’s a drug delivery device because the sole objective of smoking is to deliver nicotine and acetaldehyde to a person’s brain. The problem is, you’re delivering those two chemicals, which are the addictive chemicals, with 4,000 other chemicals, many of which cause heart disease and cancer. So, it’s these other chemicals that wreak havoc on your body. The nicotine itself is only one component of this mess that you inhale into your lung.
NPH: Who should see this film?
Charles Evans: I think it’s important for anyone who smokes or who might smoke or who is capable of being inspired to do good because it focuses on a man whose life inspired me to want to tell his story and illustrates that people can make a difference through education.
NPH: What do you hold tobacco companies responsible for?
Victor DeNoble: Well, the worse thing they did, of course, was that they blatantly deceived the public. I mean, they had information in their files going all the way back to the ‘30s and ‘40s about the addictive nature of nicotine and the ability of tobacco smoke to cause cancer and heart disease. I think that deception, that out and out deception of the American public, is number one. And that deception led to what I think was the major problem and that is that literally millions of people are ill from this product…They have cancer and heart disease and COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder]. So this industry is the leading cause of death and illness over any other industry in the world.
NPH: What is new in the film that may not have been known before?
Victor DeNoble: Even though I lived through it, it was difficult for me to connect dots because there were skirmishes going on in California and there were briefs filed in New Orleans and there were things going on in Capitol Hill and there were things going on in the Congress and the FDA. All of these things, I knew they were there, but Charlie connected this into a story. So for me the film brings together all of the bits and pieces that people may have experienced once or twice in their lifetime into one gigantic, beautiful 100 minute film.
Charles Evans: There’s no smoking gun, no headline moment, but there is a mosaic effect where you see a story being told. So it’s the story of what led up to regulation and the disgrace of the industry.
NPH: This story would be important in any time, but is it particularly important now as some of the regulations begin to be phased in?
Victor DeNoble: I think it is important because the film also shows that the industry was put under regulation in 2009 and here it’s 2012. The fact is it’s moving forward, but I think the other thing we want the film to do is to get people to go, “wait a minute—why can’t we move this faster?” I think people will walk away from the film and say we need to go faster because each day we delay more people get hurt. Nowadays things happen fast, and if we get social media involved with these regulatory processes I think we’re going to move them forward a lot faster.
NPH: What else do you think might be effective?
Charles Evans: At the end of the day, the most formative regulation that could be issued would be to reduce the nicotine content in cigarettes to the point that they don’t sustain addiction in young smokers or older ones for that matter. The FDA has the authority to do this and we are told that testing is going on that will be the foundation for that eventual regulation that will mean the end of the industry. If that does occur, it gives a federal agency the right to require the tobacco industry to withdraw nicotine to the point that it can’t addict people, and most people don’t know that.
NPH: Victor, What are you doing now?
Victor DeNoble: I work with kids. I talk to 300,000 elementary and middle school kids every single year about tobacco and nicotine addiction. The story ends with me doing what I was meant to do my whole life, and that is educating kids. For me, that’s the best part of the story and it’s what I do. My job is not to scare kids or tell kids what to do. My job is to be a scientist and give them information so that they can make better decisions and that’s what I’ll continue to do. My job is to say: here’s the science, you judge. Why would a rat addict itself to nicotine? Rats don’t have peer pressure, rats don’t go to school, rats don’t care, don’t go to the movies. It’s because nicotine is a drug. My mission or my message is that you are going to make a choice. You are going to choose to put that drug in your body or you will not. My job is to give them power to make a decision and also to know it is their decision.
NPH: What’s the best question a young student has asked you?
Victor DeNoble: Does your brain stay changed forever? They’re fascinated by that.
NPH: What’s the answer?
Victor DeNoble: The answer is yes it does because we remember things. Your brain remembers how to be a drug addict. It may take you months to become a drug addict the first time, but the second time it only takes you a few days because our brain remembers. So one of the things you need to know, I tell them, is that once you change your brain your brain will be changed, for the rest of your life. You are going to be at risk so you better make your decisions very, very carefully.
NPH: Last thoughts?
Charles Evans: I’d like people to see this film and be inspired to get in touch with the Victor in themselves, telling the story of an exemplar hopefully inspires. The energy, the enthusiasm, the integrity, the dynamism is all infectious and I hope that people will connect with that.
>>Find a screening of the film in your area.
This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.