A Billion Lives Review – We Saw It! Did It Deliver?

Director Aaron Biebert ‘s documentary goes after tobacco and tobacco control.

A Billion Lives


European premiere at the Global Forum on Nicotine

Aaron Biebert
Aaron Biebert

Aaron Biebert’s vaping documentary, A Billion Lives, had its European premiere in front of a packed house last Thursday. It turned out to be a very positive start to the Global Forum on Nicotine, with the audience agreeing that the film exceeded expectations in every department.

Although vapers are the ones who’ve been awaiting A Billion Lives most eagerly, it was a full 27 minutes before electronic cigarettes were even mentioned. The first image that confronted us, stated matter of factly in simple white on black text, was the startling claim that inspired the project: “This century a billion people are projected to die from smoking.” Biebert goes on to emphasize exactly how serious tobacco’s toll is, and outlining the history of the modern industry and its efforts to hide the effects of its products. This first part of the film is centered on former “Winston Man” David Goerlitz, who went from being the face of one of the USA’s top-selling cigarette brands to an anti-smoking activist.

If there is criticism of A Billion Lives it’s that the first section goes on ten minutes longer than it really had to. In Biebert’s defense, though, this extended introduction did make the scale of the problem starkly clear.

Is tobacco control willing to sacrifice smokers’ lives for money?

Dr. Derek Yach
Dr. Derek Yach

In the second part, the focus switched to e-cigarettes and their potential to act as a gateway out of smoking – a popular, consumer-led alternative that, properly encouraged, could save a billion lives this century. To explain this potential Biebert mustered a formidable cast of experts, including former World Health Organisation tobacco control chief Dr. Derek Yach and World Medical Association past president Dr. Delon Human. (I managed to talk to Dr. Human after the showing, and he was happy to expand on his points with the same eloquence he displayed on screen).

Aaron Biebert is a master of tone and atmosphere, and his artful filming managed to capture the energy and optimism of the vaping community without resorting to clichés. The enthusiasm of long-time anti-smoking activist Clive Bates, former head of the UK’s Action on Smoking and Health, was particularly persuasive. When someone like Bates, who has dedicated years to fighting tobacco use, endorses vapor products so strongly, it’s absurd to label them a tobacco industry ploy.

After the upbeat exploration of vaping, A Billion Lives takes a much darker turn. Biebert’s bafflement at the widespread opposition to the new technology is clear and effective, and becomes all the more so as he starts to dig into why so many people are trying to strangle vaping. The answer is as depressing as it is predictable – money. And, while Biebert certainly doesn’t shy away from criticising the tobacco industry, it soon becomes clear that they are far from the biggest villains. The pharmaceutical companies have been doing very nicely on sales of nicotine replacement products, and a blunt segment with Dr. Yach drives home the point that they don’t want to lose that income.

Most disturbing of all, though, is the revelation that tobacco control themselves have a lot to lose if smokers switch to vaping en masse. Biebert informs us that tobacco control is far from a handful of dedicated activists scraping by on public donations; it’s a $15 billion industry that gives a lot of people very comfortable salaries. Is it a surprise that they dislike threats to their income and status? Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but the fact that people whose business should be protecting our health are willing to sacrifice it for money is not a comfortable one.

A Billion Lives is about corruption


If you’ve been following the vaping debate for a while you probably won’t be too surprised at anything you hear in A Billion Lives, but it adds a rich layer of detail to the bones of knowledge. The sheer breadth of people Biebert has interviewed is one of the film’s most impressive aspects; nobody can dismiss this as the ravings of a few isolated cranks. The filming itself is excellent, too. This is no low-budget production. Artistic values are high throughout and they have done an amazing job of capturing the warped world of tobacco controllers who are willing to protect cigarette sales to maintain their own power and wealth.

Perhaps the strongest impression left by A Billion Lives is the sheer scale of forces arrayed against the disruptive technology of vaping. A lot of people, from prohibitionist activists to cash-strapped governments, have a lot to lose if vaping continues to grow. These people are determined and ruthless, a coalition of baptists and bootleggers that Biebert exposes with harsh clarity. More uncomfortably, the glare of his scrutiny is turned on vapers themselves when it’s needed – pointing out, for example, that public cloud-chasing can make us seem like our own worst enemies.

A Billion Lives is the most ambitious film yet made about vaping, but it’s so much more than that.

Its topic is e-cigarettes and the commercial interests that hate them, but it could be about any innovation that threatens a cozy, well-funded status quo. The fact that vaping is the battleground just makes this issue more personal to us, and the alternative – a billion lives cut needlessly short – is appalling enough that it should make everyone sit up and take note. At heart this is a film about corruption, and I walked out of that Warsaw cinema with a new appreciation of how ingrained, pervasive and murderously damaging corruption can be. If A Billion Lives can get that message onto screens around the world it could be one of the most influential media works of the decade. It certainly deserves to be.

Fergus Mason is a former soldier who now writes on a wide range of issues. Since switching to electronic cigarettes in 2013 he has followed the progress of anti-vaping campaigns around the world with bafflement and growing alarm. Fergus lives in Germany with an annoying cat.
  • Andy Morrison

    The credits at the end of the film also exposed a lot – a long list of those who refused to be interviewed.

    • Lisbet Supermainn Fjølstad

      well.. i am one of the names at the end.
      I dont really understand what you mean by “a long list of those who refused to be interviewed.”
      There can be alot of different ways to come on the A Billion Lives credits list. If you take me and many more, we are the translators of the European A Billion Lives pages (http://abillionlives.com/Europe/) We are actually about 12-13 people administrating the different pages.
      There should be no need for us to be interviewed?
      or did i misunderstand something here? 🙂

  • Jim McDonald

    The trick now is getting it seen — by vapers, yes, but more by non-vapers. We should contact Netflix, PBS, CNN and HBO, and ask them to get this documentary on the air.

    • WilyDingus

      Netflix has reportedly been very receptive to subscriber requests to add ABL to their lineup.

      • Jon Musen

        Citation? According to the director and maker of the documentary last week, they’ve never been contacted by Netflix at all. I want it to be true but as far as I know there is zero proof of that

        • WilyDingus

          There has been an effort among vapers who subscribe to Netflix to contact them and suggest adding the movie to their lineup. The response from Netflix in those conversations has been positive. That’s what I was referring to. Why are the filmmakers not approaching Netflix themselves instead of waiting for an engraved invitation?

    • Definitely. Would love to see that on Netflix!

  • Lollylulubes

    Thanks Fergus, I’ve been dying to hear about it. Was there any feedback afterwards from Tobacco Controllers in the audience?

    • IMSiegfried

      Lolly, I’m trying to imagine someone in the audience that would admit to being a part of TC and the corruption that’s poised to help kill one billion smokers. And wondering what they could they possibly say that would make what was portrayed about TC in the film at all OK. That said, since they *are* OK with being part of TC I guess they wouldn’t have a problem speaking up about it either, huh? :-/

    • FergusReturns

      The ones I spoke to were very positive. I didn’t speak to Arnott though. She gave me one of her simpering little smiles, but I had to walk away before something kinetic happened.

  • Amanda

    SO well put, Mr. Mason… HEAR HEAR! 🙂 Been waiting… hope we’ll get to see it somehow, here in the U.S. Not sure what’s happening in this World of ours, but classifying something as a tobacco product that, well…. isn’t…. a… tobacco… product… is startling. Even worse is anyone being willing to sacrifice human life (and SO many each/every year) for the almighty dollar; frankly, idk how they even sleep at night. When facts, truth, science, proof, common sense & right vs wrong simply don’t seem to matter anymore… When you’d think everyone would be so grateful, appreciative for every person vaping who is no longer smoking. Who isn’t forcing them, their spouses & children to constantly & without choice, inhale &/or be exposed to all of our (known dangerous/deadly) 2nd hand smoke any longer.. who’d-a-thunk we’d ever have to deal with all of this?? One thing I do know,… be afraid… be very afraid! I most definitely am, that’s for sure! =/ Thanks for the article & for sharing your thoughts… It’s been a long time coming & hopefully, I’ll get to see it someday soon, too! Live long(ER) & vape on! #ABillionLivesFilm

  • Elliott Nunez

    I contact Netflix Daily by chat by phone by email to get a billion lives on their program..Maybe if more people do the same they will listen? Flood Netflix with the request..Keep requesting…Get everyone you know to request it…Get R Done!!

    • From what I have heard, Aaron Biebert needs to go to Netflix directly. Requesting just makes it easier for him to get ABL onto Netflix.

      • Elliott Nunez

        Well Aaron needs to get on the ball then..And if more people request it when and if he does contact Netflix it will only help..

  • Tony Trenkle Jr.

    Anyone know where we can see this?

  • Kim D

    Has anything changed after this movie , where it’s been played ?