In 1979, Philip Morris enlisted a research scientist to find a healthier way to sell cigarettes. The scientist came up with the idea that the company should start selling nicotine-free cigarettes when he found out that chemical caused addiction. The company fired him. In 1994, the scientist shook their worlds at congressional hearings that called out companies like Philip Morris and Marlboro. Nicotine was addictive and it was time for them to fess up. They were the congressional hearings that would define how the entire tobacco industry would operate and package cigarettes. Scientist Victor DeNoble’s 1994 testimony made the tobacco industry admit on their products that cigarettes are not so beneficial to your health.
Stony Brook’s Healthier U screened “Addiction Incorporated,” Charlie Evans Jr.’s documentary about the 1990s congressional hearings about the dangers of nicotine. As a part of the screening, Evans and Myron Levin, a former reporter for The Los Angeles Times, came to the showings to answer questions about the film.
“[It is] thirty years in the life of a scientist who sets out to do some good has setbacks but succeeds and continues,” Evans said, describing the documentary.
Evans worked on the film for 13 years, starting after DeNoble first testified before Congress in 1994. Levin helped Evans figure out how to conduct what would become 50 interviews. He waited until a law that President Barack Obama signed in 2009, which allowed the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the tobacco industry. Before that, two sets of attorneys challenged the tobacco industry and made waves.
DeNoble’s story itself was the basis for “The Insider,” which hit movie theaters in 1999. According to Levin, it received critical praise but was a flop in the box office. Evans’ documentary has what he calls a “third act” ending with the FDA bill. Financiers were not as tempted to invest because “The Insider” had already debuted.
From a personal perspective, Evans said he felt obligated to portray nicotine addiction in a way that an eighth grader would understand. He did so with cartoons and animation. Whenever something scientific needed to be explained in the film, he reverted back to a cartoon of a human with a rat tail. Moreover, Evans himself identifies as a drug addict.
“If you hear a scientist talking about it, they’ll talk about electrical impulses and fluids that are released and this leads to that, leads to that and you can follow it for two or three steps and it becomes blurry,” Evans said. “The challenge was to communicate it in the way an eighth grader understands.”
The movie itself mostly features DeNoble and other characters like his co-workers and journalists who were investigating the addictive effects of nicotine since the 1980s.
“I thought it would be a good film, narrative film,” Evans said. That is why Evans chose to forgo a narrator for the documentary.
One of those featured in the film was Levin, who had been writing about the tobacco industry for The Los Angeles Times and coached Evans when it came time for interviews. He also helped provide context.
“They thought of themselves as David against Goliath,” Levin said of the set of state attorneys who took on the tobacco industry. He also mentioned that being a whistleblower is not for everybody. Some are scared that they will be looked at as disloyal.
Nowadays, the documentary has been shown in all 50 states. Evans wants the film to be used for education purposes in schools, kind of similar to the way that DeNoble now travels around country warning about the dangers of nicotine.
“I’m a scientist,” DeNoble starts to say to students in the movie. “I don’t work with people. I work with rats….”