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.
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.
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.
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.