“Addiction Incorporated” is more than a PSA about how cigarettes are bad for you. The documentary, now playing at the E Street Cinema, also has an element of “All the President’s Men,” with journalists struggling to tell a story that those in power don’t want told.
The story here is about the addictiveness of cigarettes — a story multiple news outlets uncovered in the mid-’90s but chose not to report, despite the information given them by whistle-blowers. “Think about it,” says director Charles Evans Jr. “A man has delivered documents on par with the Pentagon Papers, only it’s an ongoing crime, and [a reporter] is told he can’t report on it.”
The documentary’s focus is Victor DeNoble, a scientist who starts working with Phillip Morris in the 1980s to make a cigarette that, as he puts it, “was equally addictive but killed less people.” DeNoble was successful, manipulating other chemicals to lower the amount of nicotine while keeping cigarettes crave-worthy. But as he prepared to present a paper on his findings at a scientific conference, Phillip Morris suddenly pulled him from the event and shut down his lab — after all, if their in-house lab had proved that not only are cigarettes addictive but that their addictive quality is kind of the point, they couldn’t pretend that they weren’t in the addiction business.
While many would like to believe that everyone who works for Big Tobacco is a mustache-twirling villain, DeNoble is no bad guy. “This was a man who wanted to do good with science,” Evans says. “That’s the story I wanted to tell, along with the story of the cigarette industry and their behavior and all of the drama of their disgrace and decline.”
DeNoble — who now spends his time educating kids about the dangers of cigarettes, with funding provided, ironically, by the tobacco companies as part of a government settlement — is the moral center of “Addiction Incorporated.” “It’s not a ‘pound the tobacco industry’ story. In the end, it’s an educational message, a ‘Can you find the Victor in yourself?’ message.”Landmark E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW; Thu, $8-$12; 202-452-7672. (Metro Center)