Those of us outside the vaping world have probably looked at e-cigarettes, wondering why on earth these could be better for your health. Or we may have thought they were a fad, since the only people I knew who vaped were tech hipsters, who enjoyed vaping as though it was a matter of course, and nothing to be curious about—thereby keeping their habit a closed shop. But then, perhaps they were tired of repeating themselves, and had settled into being comfortable with their e-cigs.
A Billion Lives is a documentary that takes a look into this world, but it does so much more. The title refers to the number of people who can be saved if they give up smoking, but there are powerful forces at play to ensure that people don’t. And those forces have ensured that there is misinformation about vaping and the potential for the technology to save lives.
Filmmaker Aaron Biebert, who directed and narrated the film which had its world première in Wellington as part of the Doc Edge Festival, journeyed to 13 countries on four continents to find similar patterns worldwide: here is a life-saving technology of e-cigarettes, but governments were banning them or fining citizens over their use, ignoring the science and deciding to be complicit with the tobacco industry in keeping people addicted to a harmful product. Instead, governments spend money spreading lies about e-cigarettes, calling them a gateway to cigarettes, or that one could get formaldehyde poisoning, claims that the film demonstrably refutes. E-cigarettes are not completely safe, and the film acknowledges that, but they have proven to be a successful tool to help those giving up smoking, especially where mainstream solutions have failed.
In his own country, the US, Biebert points out that governments collect far more revenue from cigarette taxation than from several industries combined, and have no real incentive to cut off the flow of dollars. E-cigarettes, which were invented by pharmacist Hon Lik in China, were conceived as a way to give up smoking, and have been successful for 30 million people around the world. A Billion Lives points out that nicotine is not what causes lung cancer, and that the US Surgeon-General has said as much. What are harmful are the tar and 4,000 chemicals in modern cigarettes. It equates nicotine with coffee in terms of addictiveness, and the figure of 95 per cent less harmful than a typical cigarette featured prominently in the film. Vaping essentially allows one to get the pleasure of nicotine without the harm of the tar and toxins.
Yet as a society, we have come to equate nicotine as being the evil, addictive substance, and that’s no accident.
This point is made halfway into the film, with a good part of the first section looking into the history of cigarettes (Flintstones sponsor announcements for Winston cigarettes elicited laughs from the audience), and David Goerlitz, the Winston male model from the 1980s, being a particularly effective interviewee, discussing how he went from a smoking advocate earning millions to having a crisis of conscience when his brother developed lung cancer and died. Goerlitz went to the other side, and became a high-profile spokesman who was able to talk in plain language just what governments, Big Tobacco, and Big Pharma (which sells patches and gum, and would like to continue doing so) were doing. Health professionals were being marketed to far more than the public, permitting Big Pharma to continue to sell its products, the film notes.
Biebert was able to get other interviewees at a very high level, including Dr Derek Yach, the former executive director of the World Health Organization, and Dr Delon Human, former president of the World Medical Association, among others, speaking plainly about how lives could be saved through vaping e-cigarettes, a tool which could get smokers to kick their habit.
Meanwhile, the pro-smoking side was represented through historical clips—you get the feeling that we had only touched the surface of what was out there, with corporations spending thousands of millions to fund biased studies and get on to our airwaves.
Beautifully shot and scored, this independently funded feature tells a story about our times and just why so many citizens today are wary of their governments and multinational corporations. Those who oppose global trade agreements, for instance, do not do so in isolation—and while A Billion Lives takes no political side, it does tap into the Zeitgeist of our modern suspicion about what is on our airwaves and what are the motives behind it. Like Adam Curtis, whose documentaries seek to explain the complex in simple terms, Biebert has done the same, narrating and directing, although he appears on camera as well when narrative gaps need to be plugged. He is an honest, frank speaker, and gives the film a personal touch.
Young smokers who tried e-cigarettes were often people who already smoked and saw them as a way to give up their addiction, and most, Biebert pointed out in a post-screening Q&A, were not even using nicotine in their e-cigarettes.
Yet the state of California, where Biebert is based, spent $75 million telling us about the evils of e-cigarettes, said the director in his Q&A; while in the film, he points out that US federal funds were being illegally used for lobbying activities. The American Lung Association had deceived the public, too, notes Biebert, who told the audience, ‘If you get powerful charities on side, you can do anything.’ The increasing restrictions on e-cigarettes in the US, the subject of federal lawsuits, was equated to ‘Prohibition II’.
Dr Marewa Glover of End Smoking NZ, who introduced the film at its première, said that young people were using e-cigarettes as a way round peer pressure, when people in their circle smoked.
However, Australia has already banned e-cigarettes, with one interviewee, Vince, who sold them, telling a story about being raided by authorities and now faces losing his home as he fought the government on principle. He believed firmly he was saving lives. There are massive fines for vaping in Brunei and Hong Kong. There were restrictions in New Zealand, too, noted Glover, although those who sought to misinform were technically in breach of the country’s health legislation.
Biebert says he is neither a smoker nor a vaper; but all good documentary-makers, he had a commitment to get the right information out there. He acknowledges that vapers have not given themselves the best image, either, and that A Billion Lives can only be one small part of getting the truth out.
‘We need to cut the head off the monster,’ said Biebert, ‘and the monster is being funded by big business. We need more than the movie. People need to get the right information.’
He added, ‘The truth ends up winning. Even condoms were illegal in the US at one time.’
A Billion Lives will begin making its way to other countries. The website is at abillionlives.com, while the movie’s Instagram is at abillionlivesfilm.—Jack Yan, Publisher