In 1979 an enthusiastic young scientist named Victor DeNoble was recruited by Phillip Morris to develop a “safer” cigarette, one that would reduce smoking’s harmful effects on the heart. He succeeded. In the process he discovered that cigarettes are highly addictive—a claim that the tobacco industry had been denying for years. When he revealed the discovery, Phillip Morris pulled the plug on his research, banned DeNoble and his colleagues from publishing their findings, and fired them. Director Charles Evans, Jr.’s documentary, Addiction Incorporated, chronicles the story of DeNoble’s attempt to use science to help take down one of the largest and deadliest industries in the world: big tobacco.
Healthline chatted with DeNoble and Evans to learn what the most addictive cigarette on the market is today, why we’re still smoking, and who funds the anti-smoking program at your kid’s school. Their answers—and some lesser-known smoking truths—may surprise even the most veteran smoker.
Addiction Incorporated is your directorial debut. What made you choose this story?
CHARLES EVANS, JR: Victor’s story got a lot of attention when he testified before Congress in 1994. I sought him out and wanted to know more. The better I got to know Victor, his story—the story of a man determined to do good with science—became the one that I wanted to tell.
Phillip Morris recruited you basically right out of school. Did you have any qualms about going to work for a big tobacco company?
VICTOR DENOBLE: Absolutely not. Back in 1979, you could smoke anywhere—libraries, hospitals—most doctors and nurses [smoked]. So here was a company coming to a scientist saying, ‘We’re killing a whole bunch of people. We don’t want to do this anymore. Can you help us?’ So I’m going, ‘Yeah! This is really cool.’
When did you decide you didn’t want to be a part of it anymore?
VD: The separation came in ’83, after we tried to publish our work. [Phillip Morris] gave us permission, and then they decided we had to take the paper back from publication because they felt it would be a liable issue in terms of lawsuits. That’s when we began to say, ‘OK. We have a difference in opinion.’
There’s no such thing as a ‘safe’ cigarette. However, the one that you helped develop for Phillip Morris would at least help prevent smoking-related heart problems. Wouldn’t they want to corner the market by releasing a ‘healthier’ cigarette?
VD: It’s important to understand that back then, we thought it would work. Today, we know it would not. For the tobacco company to release that cigarette in ’83, number one: they’d been saying since 1953, ‘There’s nothing wrong with cigarette smoking and tobacco. It doesn’t cause heart disease and cancer.’ And now [they’re] going to say, ‘By the way, we lied for 30 years. Here’s a product that’s going to reduce heart disease.’ Number two: if [they] do market that product, [they] have to admit to the public that everything else [they] sell causes heart disease. That was the most dangerous thing they could possibly do. They never thought we could come up with that [cigarette].
CE: I’m told by plaintiff attorneys in the Carolinas that this program was likely an investment toward a day when they’d be regulated by the FDA and were required to have [safer products].
The FDA requires food and beverage companies to list ingredients on their products so that we know what we’re consuming. Why aren’t cigarette companies required to do the same?
VD: They have divulged the ingredients. It’s not the ingredients that are really important—it’s the products that are made from burning tobacco. There are only about 300 chemicals in tobacco. But when you burn tobacco, those 300 chemicals turn into almost 4,000. So, having a list of ingredients is almost irrelevant, in my opinion. What’s relevant is having a list of what someone inhales.
Reading a list of ingredients on a junk food package might cause some people to think, ‘I don’t want to put that in my body.’ Wouldn’t seeing the chemicals listed in cigarettes have the same effect?
VD: I think that’s relevant if you’re a non-smoker [who’s] thinking about smoking. We tend to think of smokers as having choices. They don’t have choices. Cigarette smokers are addicted to nicotine. That’s like saying to someone who’s addicted to crack cocaine, ‘You know something? This is really dangerous for you. You shouldn’t do it.’ Having the ingredients on there is like having a warning label on the pack. It’s almost insignificant.
The FDA talked about putting a really graphic image over 75 percent of the pack. Would that type of warning label be a better deterrent?
VD: Given the fact that the new smoker is 12 [or] 13-years-old, I think it would work very well in enticing young people to have that pack. We need to think differently. Young people today are used to graphics. They’re used to displays. They’re used to killing on video games.
CE: And kids will likely experiment with these things anyway, no matter what people say or put on the package. The hope is that the FDA will impose a regulation that reduces nicotine levels to the point where they won’t sustain addiction. Clinical trials have begun—the biggest of their kind. If a safe nicotine reduction is determined, it’s hoped that it will be the basis for FDA regulation.
Although we know that smoking is bad for us, nearly 20 percent of the population still smokes. Do you think it’s because they’re starting when they’re young?
VD: It’s clearly because the smoking age has been reduced. If you look back at the ‘50s and ‘60s, the smoking age was around 18 or so. Now, the average [starting] age in our country is around 12 or 13. At [that age], sometimes you don’t make very good decisions. Just because you know it’s bad for you, doesn’t mean you’re not going to try it.
In the documentary, you talk about cigarette addiction as a change in your brain. What does that mean?
VD: Drug addiction isn’t an event. It’s a process by which you slowly change the way your brain works. The more you experiment with the process, the more your brain begins to change. And once your brain is changed, you will be addicted for the rest of your life. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be on that drug for the rest of your life, but it means you’re at risk for addiction for the rest of your life.
You discovered that a chemical in cigarettes called acetaldehyde reinforces nicotine’s addictiveness. Today, it takes the average smoker seven tries to quit before they’re successful; are cigarettes manufactured to be more addictive than the cigarettes our grandparents were smoking?
VD: I think they’re probably slightly more addictive, yes. When our grandparents were using tobacco products, they were addictive, but we didn’t know why. Today we know that when you burn sugars, you form acetaldehyde. Phillip Morris was the only company who discovered a second molecule that sustains addiction—and they are the only company who added sugars to their cigarette. Marlboro became the best-selling cigarette in the entire world.
CE: Some people have spent decades just dissecting Marlboro cigarettes and charting how the product is always morphing toward a more addictive end, encouraging people to take stronger and stronger doses.
Some people lie to themselves about smoking to feel better about it. For example, I recently heard someone say that outdoors, second-hand smoke isn’t harmful because it just ‘dissipates into the air.’
VD: Actually, when [someone] has a cigarette and smells kind of funny, what you’re smelling is called an ‘aromatic hydrocarbon.’ That’s a Class A carcinogen. So, if you’re a mother and you have a cigarette outside, come in, and put your baby on your shoulder, your baby’s breathing in something that can cause cancer. That’s called third-hand smoke.
You speak to a lot of kids—over 300,000 every year—about what happens when you smoke and how, ultimately, smoking is a choice. Who funds this program?
VD: There was a major settlement agreement and [as a result], the tobacco industry has to provide funding for the individual states. Public health departments call me and say, ‘Will you come talk to our kids?’ And they actually pay my salary from the tobacco industry money. So it’s kind of convoluted, but the tobacco industry is funding, if you will, my ability to tell young people about them.
CE: They’re not doing it because they want to do what’s right. They had to settle or 50 lawsuits would have bankrupted them—one in each state—if they had lost. Michigan, I think, was days away from completing the trial and they knew they were in trouble. And for the first time in their history, [the tobacco industry] settled.
Can you gauge how effective your talking to kids about smoking is?
VD: I can tell you anecdotal stories from now until tomorrow. Kids have come up to me and said, ‘I saw you in middle school. I stopped smoking the day I saw you.’ But I think the more important data comes from the Kaiser Permanente Group. They have a program called ‘Don’t Buy the Lie.’ I go there and I talk to kids [about smoking]—I’ve been doing this for 17 years—and about three years ago, they did a survey of kids who saw me [speak] in the ‘Don’t Buy the Lie’ program. They showed that the kids who saw me had a significantly lower rate of using tobacco than the kids who didn’t. The [statistical] data exists. This program does influence young peoples’ decisions.