01/13/2012 05:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Addiction Incorporated : Doing Some Good

I don't want you to think that the film Addiction Incorporated is loaded with declarative sentences. It's not, but the few that surface anchor the story director Charles Evans Jr. is telling.

Scientists want to make a difference.
Plaintiff attorneys don't like bullies.
Journalists risk heartbreak over getting to the truth.

Let me explain. Addiction Incorporated follows Dr. Victor DeNoble from his working class background to the labs at Philip Morris to courtroom and finally, the classroom. DeNoble's work for Philip Morris focused on the addictive elements of cigarettes using rats in experiments. What he discovered was gold for the company, lethal for humans. Addiction Incorporated exposes DeNoble's findings that the tobacco industry wanted to keep under wraps.

But more than one scientist's story, Addiction Incorporated demonstrates how the power the tobacco industry held over government officials and consumers was slowly chipped away through legal action and journalistic reporting. In 2009, President Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which imposed federal regulation over the tobacco industry.

I spoke with director Charles Evans and Dr. DeNoble about the film to take a look at what went into making Addiction Incorporated.

We have the scientists, the attorneys, the journalists--now you're the filmmaker telling the story. Charles, you're the next level. What's your line?

Charles: I wanted to tell a story without a voice over narrator, a person who's face you never see and I was fortunate enough to have interviewees who went a little further than the questions I asked them. I encouraged them to roam widely and freely and they did. It resulted in these declarative statements. Plaintiff attorneys don't like bullies. That's a great stepping-stone from whatever had preceded this, of plaintiff attorneys and how they're thought of. Victor's story is the one that first got my attention and the story of a man who wants to do good through science was what galvanized me to proceed with this. The tobacco arena was just a necessary backdrop to deliver that story. If you show an exemplar who does extraordinary things, perhaps people will get in touch with their own potential to do kindred good things, extraordinary things.

That really comes full circle in the film. Victor, you became a scientist because you wanted to do good and now we see you talking to kids. For me, this was the most affecting part of the movie. Maybe it's because I have daughters that are 15 and 12 so they're right in that age group.

Victor: I do some work with high schools and colleges, but it's the younger group, the elementary and middle school kids that seem to grasp the science so well. I said in the movie that I just underestimated their interest and their ability to grasp these concepts. For me, it's so rewarding when you have a kid come up and say, "I didn't know what scientists do. That's pretty cool."

You walk into a room with some instant authority. You hear scientist and kids think, "Oh, he must know something. I don't know what he knows or what he does, but he must know something." So then you really bring it to them, not talking down to them.

Victor: I'm very much talking up to kids, challenging them to grasp concepts and facts and really challenging them to come to their own conclusions. I start off by showing them the picture of the 7 tobacco executives and tell them this is where the story ends. And then I tell them that I'm going to show them where it begins. Then I show them a rat brain and I show them pictures of the laboratory in the tobacco company and talk about the rats and how they got addicted. I tell them, show them the story. And it ends with, "It's your choice."

As a filmmaker, you're taking the science and making it easy to grasp from your explanations and the animations. With the litigation, Congress and the journalists, it all starts to get, more complicated.

Charles: We made first cuts and they were far more complicated and we scaled it back. The struggle was to make it as clean as it could be while dignifying the important history of these tobacco wars, the steps that led to regulation of the tobacco industry. One wonders where are we going with these legal battles and what is the point? Well, it's another step in the corporate disgrace or the fall in public opinion to where people wouldn't support a politician who supported tobacco. That culminated in the bipartisan vote in Congress to regulate the industry in 2009.

How did you get interested in Victor's story?

Charles: I saw his testimony on C-Span and followed up with Victor personally, wanted to know more and found his story even more interesting than the intrigue that was the cloak and dagger stuff of his coming out. Over time, I came up with a story that would be self-contained and personal and yet have this sweep of history that he's a part of.

You make extensive use of animation in the film to explain the science of addiction. At what point did you decide to use animation?

Charles: Pretty early on. There didn't seem to be any other way to communicate the complicated brain chemistry that kids get in classrooms with Victor when he explains it to them. To do that visually and engage kids and adults. I hope it also gives an emotional quality to the work in the lab that pays off when the lab gets terminated.

What do you want people to know about the film?

Victor: We want people to come to their own conclusions about this industry. It's not over yet. This industry still makes a product that kills a third of the people who use it and 95% of the other people who use it will have health concerns. They've been subject to regulation since 2009, but the process of regulation is long, slow and I don't want people to get complacent. I also want people to be entertained. The movie is a fun one. I don't want people thinking it's a social media drain. It's a fun movie, upbeat.

Charles: We want people to know history so that they don't let it be repeated. The take away, I hope, will be in seeing someone doing good. It puts them in touch with the potential to do good in themselves.

Addiction Incorporated was a New York Times Critics' Pick and is opening nationwide. Check the website for outtakes, show times and more.