Documentary films are at their best when they challenge the way society views a certain issue, and A Billion Lives certainly does that. The film shines a light on the controversial subject of vaping as an alternative to traditional smoking, and advances a theory that big tobacco companies will go to great lengths to preserve their industry.
A Billion Lives Overview
A Billion Lives premiered at select theaters across the world in late August of 2016. The film is essentially a one-man endeavor. It was produced, directed, narrated, and edited by Aaron Biebert. The filmmaker clearly states his opinion early on and makes no apologies for it. The opinion being that Big Tobacco is actively working to suppress vaping as a healthier alternative to traditional smoking.
Biebert weaves a conspiratorial narrative that suggests a nefarious web of special interests including governments, medical professionals, and anti-cancer charities are actively involved in an effort to prevent tobacco users from turning to vaping in an effort to quit smoking. Behind the curtain and pulling all the strings, Biebert asserts, is Big Tobacco.
For one hour and thirty-five minutes, Biebert lays out his case in the form of interviews with a cast of experts who provide stories which attempt to tie the threads of the web together. Among the individuals gathered to support Biebert’s case is the “Winston Man” David Goerlitz, the past president of the World Medical Association Dr. Delon Human, and the former executive director of the World Health Organization Dr. Derek Yach. This is certainly an impressive ensemble. Goerlitz plays an important role in the documentary, appearing at various stages to offer his first-hand experiences of working for the tobacco industry. Goerlitz was the iconic male model who became the face of Winston cigarettes. He later went on to denounce Big Tobacco in the late 1980’s. He has an ax to grind, without question, but his revelations come across as sincere and authentic. Taken together with the other evidence presented in the film, these revelations do not help the reputation of the beleaguered tobacco industry.
Biebert claims that one billion lives will be lost to cigarette smoking over the next twenty years, and then he goes on to make the controversial point that vaping could potentially cut that number by more than half. This is the point at which the film veers away from hard data and begins to offer up speculation. It’s a challenging prospect because the studies regarding the efficacy of vaping as a healthier substitute for smoking are still in their infancy. Additionally, as Biebert explains, the regulations of the FDA make it virtually impossible for any organization or even a website to suggest that vaping is safer. Doing so can risk considerable censure and fines, measures which Biebert contends are all part of the conspiracy to keep tobacco on top.
Like a criminal district attorney who must somehow convict a murderer on the basis of purely circumstantial evidence, Biebert uses the latter part of the film to make his closing argument that traditional smoking faces a serious threat from vaping. That threat is something the tobacco industry is doing everything in its power to quash. Through forging partnerships with special interests, Biebert claims, Big Tobacco is making a concerted attempt to downplay vaping as an effective way to stop smoking. This attempt even includes the banning of vaping devices in certain countries.
Can A Billion Lives Create a Change?
The reality is that A Billion Lives is one of the strongest documentaries released this year. Given the shady reputation of Big Tobacco, it won’t be that hard for many viewers to accept Biebert’s claims. The real issue is how many individuals will care.
The tobacco industry spends billions each year on marketing and reputation management, even despite long-standing regulations which have severely limited how they can advertise their product. In an ironic twist, these regulations have perhaps done more to remove the health risks associated with smoking from the consciousness of the general public than they have to prevent smoking. What Biebert is trying to do with his film is renew awareness. If public officials are inundated with requests for more studies on the viability of vaping as a smoking alternative, the evidence that Biebert is looking for could emerge.
Until that time, the battle between vaping and Big Tobacco will continue while the film’s billion lives hang in the balance. At the very least, this documentary should be a stark reminder that some kind of alternative must be promoted. At the present time, vaping is the most reasonable alternative society has, and that should merit continued studies.