In his documentary, A Billion Lives, filmmaker Aaron Biebert looks at the phenomenon of e-cigarettes, or “vaping” – a form of nicotine delivery that advocates say is much healthier than smoking tobacco. However, vaping has been under legal attack and has been banned in several jurisdictions, which Biebert’s film asserts is due to pressure and misinformation from the tobacco industry.
“Just like many people, I am friends with vapers on Facebook.”Biebert tells us. “Just like many people, I thought it looked odd, like some sort of hipster way to smoke. I used to make fun of it, until one of them pointed out that it saved their life. Even worse, they showed me how propaganda from powerful American organizations was making this new technology look bad.”
The real drive to make the film came when he read that the United Nations estimates that a billion lives will be lost to smoking this century (hence the title). “I knew I had to do something. I am sick of big companies pushing their propaganda all over the world and hurting society. They’re ruining our environment, our food, our medicine, and so much more. I want this film to push back.”
Biebert avers that he held few preconceived notions going in. “However, I did lose a friend (smoker) to lung cancer and knew how devastating smoking can be to a family. If there was truly a way for people addicted to smoking to easily quit, but it was being held back, I knew it would be a big story. So many of us have lost friends and family members to cancer.”
The film covers a lot of ground. “My goal from day one was to talk with scientists, doctors, and health leaders. I wanted to get the facts about this from the experts. It was difficult, but once we met some of them at the Global Forum on Nicotine, it because easier to find them. It’s all about networking, and we had no network when we began.”
Biebert expected resistance from the tobacco industry, but was surprised when pushback came from an unexpected quarter: the quit smoking industry, who market technologies and techniques designed to help smokers break the habit. Many declined to be interviewed. “…we had a stated goal of remaining neutral during the process. Health advocates, pharmaceutical companies, government leaders all said no.”
“There was clearly something going on, so I pushed ahead until I got the former Executive Director at the World Health Organization and the former president of the World Medical Association to go on record. What they had to say was shocking.”
Despite restrictions on nicotine – it is a proscribed Class 7 poison, e-cigarettes remain popular in Australia. “We have hundreds of people from Australia contacting us,” Biebert comfirms. “And they tell us that vapor technology is still being used. The only things the ban has been effective at is reducing safety measures (black markets aren’t usually safe places) and keeping most smokers scared away from the one technology that might save their life.
“It’s a shame.”
A Billion Lives screens at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, which runs from July 9 – 11. For tickets and session times, head to Moshtix.