Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

August 29–September 5, 1996

cover story

A local writer's fiendish new thriller sends chills through the tobacco industry. It might scare you, too.

By Annette Earling

Carole Stuart's voice gushes 100 miles away somewhere in Manhattan's skyline. The subject of discussion is Gasp!, a first novel by Wayne, PA author Frank Freudberg that is slated to be released next week by Barricade Books.

The book should market itself, says Stuart, Barricade's publisher. Just look at the newspapers — Bill Clinton has finally opted to regulate the tobacco world.

"We couldn't write the headlines any better than are being written now!" Stuart crows.

She has a point. President Clinton's Aug. 23 signing of legislation to regulate the sale and advertising of tobacco (following Bob Dole's ill-timed suggestion that tobacco is not addictive); the recent court victory in which a lung-cancer victim in Florida was awarded $750,000 from a cigarette manufacturer; the growing suspicion that tobacco manufacturers have been altering nicotine levels in cigarettes in order to make them even more addictive...

What better climate in which to release a novel about a cancer-stricken terrorist secretly distributing poisoned cigarettes that can kill with one puff?

Tobacco companies think the whole concept of Gasp! is sick. Film companies, while interested, worry whether the novel might inspire copycat killers. And the fact that Freudberg researched the book by successfully planting "tainted" cigarettes all across the country (including right here in Philadelphia) raises some difficult questions about American consumer protection, and perhaps about Freudberg himself. For instance, is this guy nuts?

The story of Gasp! goes like this.

Anti-hero Martin Muntor is an embittered Philadelphia journalist (is there any other kind?) who is fired from his job and learns that he has inoperable lung cancer, all within the same week. Muntor has smoked all his life, but instead of assigning himself the blame and resigning himself to his fate, he decides to wreak revenge on the tobacco industry — never mind if a few hundred people have to die to make his point.

Muntor, in a fury of inspiration not seen in any fictional character since Hannibal Lecter, hatches a scheme to tamper with thousands of packs of cigarettes, injecting them with a sodium cyanide solution and distributing them all over the country to be puffed at by unsuspecting dopes. A single inhalation of one of Muntor's trick sticks will shut down the respiratory system completely. The victim can inhale, but his lungs are rendered powerless to process oxygen, and death arrives within moments. Freudberg treats the reader to only one description of such a death, and believe me, once is enough.

Freudberg shares some traits with his protagonist. Like Muntor, he's a journalist, though Freudberg's career has been considerably more successful: he's contributed to Associated Press, UPI and Reuters, as well as USA Today and Newsweek, and he currently owns Informedia, an editorial and research service. And, like Muntor, Freudberg is from the Philadelphia area; he was born and raised in Cheltenham. (After being accepted into the honors English program at Temple University, he dropped out of Cheltenham High to drive an ice cream truck for Jack and Jill. He eventually got a B.A. in Education at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.)

Not surprisingly, Philadelphia figures prominently in the novel: Muntor lives on Roosevelt Boulevard; one of the heroines is a psychiatrist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania; a character comments wryly on the Philadelphia International Airport's in-progress construction project. But Freudberg had to do some painstaking research into the areas of the book that were unfamiliar to him: namely, how do you get away with poisoning hundreds of cigarette smokers?

To test the plausibility of his premise, he set about acquiring the necessary tools for the job, including enough cyanide to kill 2,500 people. He then bought hundreds of packs of cigarettes and, after marking them in various ways, managed to get them into the hands (and lungs) of hundreds of strangers. Of course, Freudberg's marked packs were completely harmless, but the implications of his research are chilling.

Getting sodium cyanide, for instance, is apparently easier than getting your driver's license renewed. In order to mimic the actions of his antagonist, Freudberg needed to acquire the poison without leaving a paper trail that would lead back to him. No problem. He simply called a local chemical supply firm and, using a fictitious name, ordered up enough cyanide to kill off a small town's worth of people. The only question asked of him by the woman on the other end was, "Powder or crystal?" (She probably assumed he was ordering the sodium cyanide for one of its many legal uses, which include photography and the manufacture of jewelry.)

Freudberg was prepared to pay with an anonymous money order, but he was assured that there was no rush; he would receive an invoice with his package. So, in theory, a real consumer terrorist could simply chuck the invoice in the trash (or light up a butt with it) and save himself the 30 bucks.

To avoid being detected through the mail, Freudberg simply went to a local mailbox service center and asked if, for a fee, he could be allowed to receive a package. He gave a false name and was not asked for any identification. Again, no problem.

The novel contains a meticulous description of Muntor's tampering techniques. Working slowly with an Exacto blade, he slits open the bottom of each pack, exposing the ends of the cigarettes. He then injects each with a cyanide solution, learning through trial and error how to make his deadly alterations nearly invisible. Next, he stacks the treated packs and dries them on the low setting with a portable hair dryer, having discovered that the high setting will crinkle the cellophane wrappers. Finally, he seals each pack shut with clear, quick-drying glue.

Freudberg, with a determination nearly as exacting as his antagonist's, discovered and practiced these techniques for hours — the only difference being that the author had no intention of ever using the cyanide. Fearing that something so simple as his cat brushing by might cause it to fall, killing them both with a cloud of poisonous dust, he left the cyanide tightly sealed. His practice "trick packs" were treated with a simple sugar and water solution, sugar crystals being roughly the same size and solubility as cyanide. (Freudberg later returned the unopened poison to the supply company with a simple note, "ordered in error.")

Next came the task of determining how he could get nearly 100 marked, untreated packs into the hands of smokers. He marked the packs in one of two ways: either by drawing a red X on the bottom with a red magic marker, or by slitting open and sealing shut the bottom of the pack.

He perfected several methods of distributing his experimental packs, many of which would be later used with deadly effect by Martin Muntor. During a cross-country drive to the West Coast, Freudberg stopped and dropped at every state along the way,escaping detection in all instances.

First, he learned how to pull a switch at the counter of any convenience store. He would request a pack of Brand A cigarettes from the cashier and then suddenly decide, oops, I've changed my mind... can I have Brand B instead? In the meantime, out of the cashier's line of vision, Freudberg would palm the legitimate pack, replacing it with his own doctored version of Brand A to be handed back to the unsuspecting cashier, whereupon it would be placed directly onto the store's shelves.

Another method of getting his packs into distribution was to surreptitiously jam a pack up into the appropriate slot of a cigarette vending machine. When someone came along to buy that brand of cigarette, they would be treated to not one, but two packs, as the legitimate pack fell down, bringing with it Freudberg's tampered version. The author recalled watching a young Texas couple at a bus station, who, upon getting two packs for the price of one, high-fived each other and laughed before boarding their bus. They felt they'd won the lottery. If Martin Muntor had been watching, rather than Frank Freudberg, their rewards would have been much more final.

Other methods were less risky — he simply left packs in tempting places to be picked up by smokers. He invented what he calls his "teenage-girl packet," the basic equipment of every adolescent mall rat: a pack of cigarettes, a funky-colored lighter and a few dollars, all wrapped up in an elastic hair band. He'd leave them on benches in malls and, within minutes, they'd be snatched up. He often left lighters with his "lost" packs, creating a sense of authenticity and an added incentive to smokers. Dozens of his packs were picked up in bars, restaurants, hotels and other public places. He recalls leaving one pack on the floor beside the war memorial sculpture at 30th Street Station here in Philadelphia. After only moments, a lawyer-type in a thousand-dollar suit swooped, stooped and scooped, only to disappear nonchalantly back into the crowd.

Of course, as stated before, none of these smokers was in any danger whatsoever. The packs in question were merely marked by Freudberg and not tampered with internally. However, the ease with which Freudberg was able to acquire the means, manage production and arrange distribution for his cigarettes is, to say the least, alarming.

Asked if he fears legal action for any of his research techniques, Freudberg replied, "Not from the tobacco companies. I guess I could be in hot water if some consumer decides to sue me for making it easy for him or her to get free cigarettes — which I knew or should have known can cause lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease."

The primary subplot of Gasp! revolves around the tobacco industry's reaction to Muntor's terrorism, in particular the reaction of the main focus of Muntor's rage, a fictitious company named TobacCo. President and C.E.O. of TobacCo W. Nicholas Pratt is far less concerned with protecting consumers from poisoned cigarettes than he is with protecting his company from investigations into allegations that they have been adding their own brand of poison to their product. For TobacCo has spent millions on research to determine the exact level of nicotine at which a cigarette becomes addictive.

The novel throws in dozens of real-life references, melding them seamlessly into the story. For example, Martin Muntor, in a red herring communication to the FBI, lists the names of seven tobacco industry executives as his co-conspirators — which happen to be the real names of the seven tobacco industry executives who testified before a congressional subcommittee that nicotine is not addictive and that there's no evidence linking tobacco smoke to lung cancer.

For their part, tobacco industry spokespeople think the book's premise is appalling.

"It's pretty sick," says Lisa Eddington, managing director of the National Tobacco Council in Raleigh, NC."It's too far off the deep end to even consider commenting on."

Maura Ellis, a spokesperson for R.J. Reynolds in Winston-Salem, NC, refused to comment ("Sorry, no way," says Ellis, who says she may read the book), and executives at Lorillard Inc.'s New York office (producer of Newport and Kool) and Philip Morris in Richmond, VA refused comment, too.

Upon completion of his novel, Freudberg used even more unusual techniques to elicit feedback. One of his methods was hauntingly similar to those of his villain.

Martin Muntor's initial salvo was a series of 700 poisoned packs FedEx'd to tobacco retailers around the country. Included was a letter on TobacCo letterhead which read, "We are conducting a consumer survey... Open the enclosed pack of Easy Lights and enjoy one cigarette just as you would any other... Complete the enclosed survey form now, and you'll be $100 wealthier in just a few minutes!"

Freudberg used the mail in a similar but less lethal way when he tried to get a wider circle of readers to respond to his book. Realizing that he was getting nothing but positive comments from friends and family ("My dad, who criticized me all his life, suddenly has nothing bad to say, other than, 'Hey, this is a page turner!'"), he decided that he needed more objective criticism. Thus, he represented himself as an employee of a company that does marketing research for publishing companies. He made 20 copies of his novel and sent them to strangers, offering a $50 fee to read and evaluate it. To make his scheme seem more legit, he offered hs potential readers three choices: a text-book on auto repair, a psycho-thriller, or a book on bread-baking.

Respondents invariably chose the thriller.

Finding a publisher was another tricky matter. This broad shot at the firmly entrenched tobacco industry was met with suspicion and even fear. One publisher went so far as to say, "I'll take a pass... because I'm a smoker."

Barricade Books, after initially discouraging Freudberg from submitting because they specialize in non-fiction, called him within a week of receiving his specifically un-requestedmanuscript. They currently have very high hopes for this novel and its potential as a film. (Freudberg received a "very nominal" four-figure advance, he says, a "very fair" royalty arrangement, and 50 percent of any deals involving movie, TV or other subsidiary rights.)

But negotiations with film studios have given added weight to a troubling question concerning Freudberg's book. Didn't he prove that anybody with a syringe, Exacto knife and cyanide can ruin a good smoke? Couldn't somebody read the book (or see the movie), then go out and replicate the exercise?

Even those fighting the results of smoking are a little skittish about the book's revenge scenario.

"Can't you just see it happening all over the country?" asks Sherry Milligan, executive director of the American Association for Respiratory Care in Dallas, TX, a group that represents healthcare workers who treat people with emphysema, cancer, bronchitis and asthma. "We would be concerned about the copycat effect. It's a bit of a radical measure. It's really kind of scary."

Barricade's Carole Stuart says such thinking is unnecessarily alarmist.

"I don't believe that somebody picks up a book and says, 'I'm going to do it,'" sniffs Stuart. "I don't think a book creates crime. Criminals create crime. You need a crazy person to pick up a book and commit a crime."

Then again, Stuart and Freudberg admit that one movie studio decided not to pursue film rights to Gasp! for fear of a copycat nightmare.

"There might be some [fear of copycats] in Hollywood," Stuart says. "But go to any movie nowadays, any action picture, the same thing could be said about them."

Freudberg underlines that point, saying that all manner of horrible crimes and topics are treated and even celebrated in Hollywood. When asked how he would react if his book was made into a movie and did inspire a criminal act, he responds, "Our society has ways of dealing with this. We have a system of justice to prevent and punish such actions."

Furthermore, he notes, such a film could inspire some much-needed reassessment of security measures. "The retail distribution system in the United States is extremely vulnerable to attack. Now that security is tightening around airports and other common targets, terrorists will look for alternatives. Believe me, the first place they'll look to is our retail system."

In any case, Stuart is confident that the book will continue to attract attention — and movie deals. Despite the one rejection, she brags that a "household name" film studio continues to pursue Gasp!'s rights, and mentions that famed screenwriter and novelist William Goldman is now reading the book. The only thing stalling a deal, she and Freudberg claim, is a small matter of dollars.

And Barricade is clearly loving the notoriety Freudberg's book has generated.

"Our forte is controversy," Stuart says, noting that Barricade will soon republish The Turner Diaries, an infamous racist vision of the Aryan world, best known for inspiring alleged Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

She says Gasp! was a perfect fit for Barricade's profile. Lyle Stuart (Carole's husband, who owns Barricade and serves as corporate president) has long savaged the tobacco industry, dating back to his days at the muckraking newspaper The Independent."That was the '50s,"Carole Stuart stresses.

And there's one more thing. Freudberg ain't psychotic. Even though he did buy all that sodium cyanide.

"Frank's kind of a wild guy, but I think his passion lies on the right side of the issue," Stuart says.

During an interview last week in Center City, I ask Freudberg if he smokes or ever has smoked. Surprisingly enough, he replies, "Well, nothing legal."

That statement is more than just a comic aside. Freudberg spent many years under the spell of cocaine, which ultimately led to a two-year addiction to freebasing. He has also battled a gambling problem. Gasp!, a novel about addiction and revenge, was written by a man who can speak firsthand about the downward spiral and slow enlightenment of addiction and recovery.

Knowing that I'm a smoker, he asks me if reading his book made me want to light up. But there is no loving treatment of cigarettes in this book... no elaborate description of the joys of smoking. Sure, I smoked as I read. But every cigarette made me supremely uncomfortable. My barely existent wheezes became magnified a thousand times. No smoker could have written this book. However, Freudberg's accounts of both Muntor's self-medication and protagonist Rhoads' gambling woes have a ring of truth to them.

This begs the question, "Why tobacco? Why would a non-smoker attack a practice and an industry that he has successfully side-stepped his entire life?"

I ask if anyone in his family or anyone close to him has ever died as a result of smoking. He replies, "No. But every woman I've ever fallen in love with has been a smoker, and in many cases that wrecked it."

When I ask why he chose to go after tobacco and not cocaine interests, a subject that would seem nearer and dearer to his heart, he replies, "Gasp! is a book about addiction and the fruitlessness of revenge. Why pick freebasing — something that only one-thousandth of the population can relate to — over cigarette smoking?"

Certainly he couldn't have found a better time to tap into the public consciousness of cigarette smoking than right now. The regulations recently signed by President Clinton not only limit the sale and advertising of tobacco, but declare it an addictive drug and place it under the control of the FDA — suggestingthat Martin Muntor's introduction of a deadly poison into a non-regulated product is no different from what cigarette companies do millions of times a day.

Through its synthesis of truth and fiction, Gasp! takes a shot at the underbelly of the smoking industry, as well as asking the public to take a fresh look at some long-held notions of public safety, terrorism and regulation of deadly materials, nicotine being chief among them. If nothing else, it should open up a window in the smoke-filled back rooms of tobacco politics, letting in a breath of cyanide-tinged air.

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