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Philip Morris couldn’t snuff out Victor DeNoble ‘Addiction Incorporated’

New documentary lights up addiction scientist’s story

By Peter Rowe

Originally published January 25, 2012 at 6 p.m., updated January 26, 2012 at 6 p.m.


Philip Morris fired cigarette researcher Victor DeNoble, but that wasn’t enough.

His lab was closed, his lab rats killed, his studies buried. Company lawyers forced him to sign a lifetime nondisclosure statement. His work on nicotine addiction was so dangerous, Philip Morris wanted to erase every trace of DeNoble.

How’s that going, Phil?

DeNoble, 62, has become one of the nation’s most prominent anti-smoking campaigners. The San Diego resident travels constantly, speaks to 350,000 students a year — delivers up to four talks a day — and tangles with the tobacco industry in legislative chambers and courtrooms. Now the star of “Addiction Incorporated,” a new documentary that opens here Friday, he is hailed as a whistle-blower whose testimony made possible the $206 billion settlement U.S. tobacco companies approved in 1998.

He has the brains of a Bill Gates and, to hear some critics, the on-screen charisma of a Brad Pitt. DeNoble “reveals himself to be a born raconteur,” The New York Times’ Jeannette Catsoulis wrote. “His easygoing, self-deprecating narration is the film’s most valuable asset and the viewer’s best friend.”

Not bad for someone who was supposed to be a nonperson. But DeNoble’s story is a curious one, full of odd turns and a bizarre quest. The key chapter begins in 1980, when he was hired by Philip Morris — the parent corporation of Marlboro, Virginia Slims, Benson & Hedges and many other brands — to research “safer” cigarettes. In 1983, he succeeded.

And sealed his fate.

Proof negative

Growing up on Long Island, N.Y., Victor struggled to read and comprehend his school lessons. No scholar, he assumed he would follow in his father’s footsteps as a plumber. Dad, though, insisted that Victor apply for college.

“Why?” the teenager asked.

“To meet smart women, stupid.”

At Adelphi University, Victor met women and made another, non-hormone-related, discovery. He wasn’t dumb; he was dyslexic. To his eyes, printed words appeared backward. Victor relearned to read — and his grades soared. Studying drug addiction, he earned a bachelor’s degree and then a doctorate.

Recruited by Philip Morris, the young Ph.D naively accepted assurances that the tobacco giant wanted good science and good works. “In 1979,” he noted, “smoking had no stigma. You could smoke anywhere. They came to me and said, ‘We are killing a whole bunch of people. Can you help us save some people?’”

Every year, DeNoble was informed, 138,000 smokers die from nicotine-induced heart attacks and brain strokes. What if Philip Morris could market a cigarette that caused no cardiovascular damage?

Experimenting with rats in the corporation’s labs, DeNoble found a nicotine substitute, 2 prime methyl-nicotine. It didn’t damage the heart — yet was equally addictive.

The news thrilled DeNoble’s bosses, until they realized that cigarettes with chemical additives would be scrutinized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“Damn it,” DeNoble was told, “you’ve made us into a pharmaceutical company.”

His research, though, was proof positive that nicotine addicted. With his supervisors’ permission, DeNoble and two co-authors submitted their findings to a professional publication. It was scheduled for the Journal of Psychopharmacology’s September 1983 issue when DeNoble was forced to withdraw the paper. In the view of Philip Morris’ lawyers, the scientists’ proof positive was a legal proof negative, damning evidence that cigarettes were drugs.

Still, DeNoble won promotions and more funds for his lab. When he and a colleague, Paul Mele, were summoned to see their boss on April 5, 1984, he expected good news.

Instead, they were fired and muzzled. To receive a severance package, they were forced to agree to never discuss their work.

#1 whistle-blower

In 1994, a decade after DeNoble’s firing, he was contacted by federal investigators. FDA Chairman David Kessler, about to appear before a congressional committee investigating tobacco’s health effects, needed experts to brief him. Could DeNoble help?

Citing the nondisclosure agreement, DeNoble declined.

That wasn’t good enough. In one of the most dramatic scenes of “Addiction Incorporated,” Los Angeles congressman Henry Waxman presses the CEO of Philip Morris to release DeNoble from this agreement. After numerous evasions, the tobacco executive finally agrees.

Two weeks later, DeNoble testified that nicotine is addictive; that Philip Morris knew this; and that the corporation — and, no doubt, its competitors — sought ways to heighten this effect.

This is all common knowledge — now. Then? “Victor De Noble was the first whistle-blower,” Waxman said in the documentary. “I know a lot of people have talked about other whistle-blowers. But he was the first one.”

As “Addiction Incorporated” notes, DeNoble became a key ally of the states attorneys general who sued the tobacco companies, eventually winning that landmark $209 billion settlement. Despite this payout, big tobacco is bigger than ever — Philip Morris, for instance, has seen its stock price climb 51 percent in the last five years.

Will “Addiction Incorporated” further tarnish these corporations?

Philip Morris did not address questions about DeNoble and his research but a company spokesman did comment on the movie.

“This film covers topics regarding smoking that have been in the public domain for some time,” David Sutton, a Philip Morris USA spokesman, said via email Thursday. “PM USA agrees with the overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking is addictive and causes serious diseases in smokers.”

“Addiction Incorporated” concludes with President Obama signing a 2009 law expanding the FDA’s oversight to include cigarettes. “PM USA stood alone among the major cigarette manufacturers in support of FDA regulation over cigarettes,” Sutton noted, “and believes that this regulation can provide significant benefits to tobacco manufacturers and adult tobacco consumers.”

That’s not enough, DeNoble argues. The movie shows him running on the trails near the Santa Luz home he shares with his wife, Kimi DeNoble, but those jogs are rare occasions. That was a rare occasion. More often, he’s running to airports or classrooms, preparing to talk to students about science, nicotine and rats — both four- and two-legged varieties.

How could he ever believe that a tobacco company would want a safer cancer stick?

He smiled. These days, his close cropped hair is graying and his face has acquired a few wrinkles. But there’s still something fresh and idealistic about that smile.

“I was young,” he said, “and I was wrong.”

© Copyright 2012 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.

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