Interview: Director Aaron Biebert Talks About A Billion Lives

We learned more about the movie before its US premiere August 6th

Director Aaron Biebert - A Billion Lives
Director Aaron Biebert - A Billion Lives

A Billion Lives is coming home on August 6th

With the US premiere of A Billion Lives just a few days away, we thought this would be a perfect time to catch up with director Aaron Biebert and ask a few questions. He’s a busy man these days, having just returned from Australia, where the movie and Biebert won prizes for best film and best director at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Not long before that, A Billion Lives had its European premiere in Warsaw, Poland, where we reviewed it.

“Perhaps the strongest impression left by A Billion Lives is the sheer scale of forces arrayed against the disruptive technology of vaping,” wrote our reviewer Fergus Mason. “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.”

A talk with Aaron Biebert

Can a movie change the public debate about vaping?

A Billion Lives - Brussels
A Billion Lives - Brussels

Vaping360: You obviously knew the story of e-cigarettes and vaping before you began filming. How did you become familiar with the issues around the public health and government opposition to vaping, and why was it important to you?

Aaron Biebert: After one of my colleagues died from lung cancer, I started to research smoking addiction, the chances of quitting, and what therapies work. Admittedly, I initially thought that vaping looked like some hipster way to keep smoking indoors. Years later, some friends educated me more on the topic. They sounded like conspiracy theorists with talk about how big business and allied government interests were interfering with this cheap, drug-­free alternative that is clearly successful in helping people quit smoking. When I found out that a billion people were projected to die from smoking this century, I knew this had to be investigated further. Telling this story to the public is what A Billion Lives is all about.

Which of your interviews for the film were the most eye ­opening for you?

The biggest shock was when the former [Secretary General] of the World Medical Association told me that most doctors think nicotine causes cancer when it has been known for years that it doesn’t. These are the trusted people going on TV. They think vaping is bad because of nicotine, so they keep telling people to avoid the new technology. The CDC continues to perpetuate the myth as you’ll see in the movie.

Did anyone decline to be interviewed?

All the related Big Pharma companies, the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, American Heart Association, [California] State Senator Mark Leno, the FDA, CDC, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. It was pretty disappointing, and shows their lack of evidence to support their positions. People with nothing to hide were excited to be a part of this.

Dr. Derek Yach
Dr. Derek Yach

How do you see A Billion Lives affecting the public debate about vaping?

We’ve already begun affecting the debate over the past year. Mainstream press is mentioning our film when talking about the issue and we’re continuing to do interviews that bring the truth to TV, radio, and printed press. As for the public, they don’t want to see vapers telling the world how great vaping is. They want to hear from doctors, scientists, and health leaders. That’s exactly what we bring to the table.

Do you have any news on potential distribution plans?

The enthusiasm for the film has been overwhelming, but the distribution plan will depend on how our premiere goes. We’re planning a spectacular event, but ultimately it will depend on the impression we make on key Hollywood and media people that will be there. That’s why it’s so important that key people in the vaping industry take the time to join us and show support.

"Most vapers still don't know about A Billion Lives"

Are you worried that vapers expect too much from A Billion Lives? For example, the belief that it will lead to a huge change in public opinion? Are you concerned that they may be investing too much hope in your movie?

I used to worry about that. However, after seeing the response in New Zealand, I’m getting more confident. Their government came out after our premiere and publicly announced on TV that they were going to reconsider their ban. A bit later, they defunded some of the anti­-smoking groups that weren’t adopting this successful new technology. If anything, I don’t think vapers are utilizing our message enough. Here we are, providing unbiased, educated, and award-­winning information to help get the truth out, but most of them don’t even know about our movie.

Many vapers have really latched onto A Billion Lives. Are you concerned about being too closely associated with vapers? For instance, will opponents of vaping be able to discount the film’s value based on that association?

In our hunt for the truth, we went right for the doctors and scientists. That’s mainly what the public cares about. They want to hear from experts. We ended up getting two of the top doctors in the world, the former [Secretary General] of the World Medical Association and the former [cabinet director] at the World Health Organization. What they had to say was game ­changing and credible. Yes, we have a lot of vapers behind us, but we also have a lot of doctors, scientists, and general public supporting us as well. The majority of attendees at our premieres so far have not been vapers. This is a public movement.

Has the attention from the vaping community been good for your effort to get A Billion Lives seen and to find distribution? Any frustrations?

Absolutely. The vaping community has been very passionate about helping people and that has fit naturally with the message of our film. The vast majority of vapers still don’t know about us though, so there’s still a ton of work to be done.

It’s frustrating to see a small group of people lose interest in our film because it won’t be on YouTube for free. That’s really an odd response to a professional movie that will help so many people. We need publicity and marketing for the issue and that’s not going to happen for a free YouTube video. Period.

See you in Milwaukee!

Your North American premiere is being held in Milwaukee, which is also your home. What should people know about Milwaukee?

Milwaukee is an amazing city. We host the world’s largest music festival each year, Harley-­Davidson is here, it’s got one of the highest bars/restaurants per capita in the world. It truly is the cultural capital of the Midwest. We had opportunities to do the North American premiere in New York and Los Angeles, but we wanted to bring it home first and give a tribute to the crew who made the movie and the many people in our city that care about the truth. Plus, Chicago is nearby. We have about 15 million people within 150 miles.

Producer and Editor - Jennifer Biebert at Machu Picchu
Producer and Editor - Jennifer Biebert at Machu Picchu

Has being from the middle of the country –­­ rather than the coasts –­­ made it harder to connect with business people in the movie/TV industry?

We think that being from the middle part of the country has insulated us from certain forces that would have prevented a film like this. It’s also allowed us to make an award-­winning film on a lower budget. We’re not worried about connections. When a production company does great work, the word spreads. With the awards we’re winning and the big premiere event we have planned, heads are definitely turning. Our location won’t be a problem.

Is there anything vapers can do now to help A Billion Lives get seen and make a difference?

We need to get the big voices in the vaping community to start talking about our movie on their YouTube channels, on their forums, to their e-mail lists. It’s terrible when I go to pass out fliers to local vape shops and they have no idea we have a big premiere coming up in their area. We don’t have the budget to reach them without big voices helping us.

Be there on August 6th!

The premiere is on August 6, at the historic Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. Tickets may still be available for those readers lucky enough to be able to get there. As Aaron said, it’s important that the premiere be an impressive event. This documentary’s success may be crucial to getting the public attention we need to beat the FDA’s attempt to crush vaping.

If you can make it, you’ll have a chance to meet the film crew and a lot of vaping luminaries like Phil Busardo and the AVA’s Greg Conley. Molecule Labs is throwing a huge afterparty for all attendees too. You’ll be able to look back someday and say that you were there the day the tide turned in the fight to show vaping’s lifesaving potential to the general public.

It’s going to be a big day for vaping.

Jim McDonald
I spend most of my time studying the regulatory, legislative and scientific challenges to vaping, advocating for our right to exist, and talking with others who do the same. Consider me a source for information, and feel free to agree or disagree with anything I say. I love good coffee and sweet Michigan cherries. My childhood hero was Gordie Howe.
  • Ben Reed

    It’s too late. If he really wanted to make a difference, it would have been released sooner, instead of TWO DAYS BEFORE THE DEEMING REGS. Utterly pointless, and at this point is simply preaching to the choir. If this were released a year ago, it might have triggered some thought and changes. Now? Yeah…

    ‘Beat the FDA’s attempts to crush vaping” in less than two days? Good luck with that…

    • Jim McDonald

      We need attention from the general public. We need a shift in popular beliefs. That won’t happen overnight. Beating the FDA will require winning in court, or convincing Congress to amend the Tobacco Control Act. Expecting a documentary to do that is too much. *We* have to do it.

      • Ben Reed

        I absolutely agree – and what would be undoubtedly one if the best tools to change popular beliefs? This documentary. My point still stands. There are not enough of “us” to make a difference, we need to convince the sheeple. This could have done just that, with a little more forethought, a more sensible release schedule and some sufficiently aggressive marketing. At this point, what does the film accomplish other than preaching to the choir?