By the end of the 21st century a billion people are projected to die from smoking-related illnesses according to the World Health Organisation. On its own, such a number is impossible to fully understand. It is the stories behind the number which really help drive home the reality of what the world is facing over the next 80 years.
Aaron Biebert’s new film, ‘A Billion Lives’, very clearly takes inspiration from this statistic, just glance at its title, but digs deeper to unearth personal experiences of the rise of vaping, and the attempts worldwide to shut it down.
Recently, two IBVTA members hosted screenings of this film at opposite ends of the UK. The Southampton Vaping Centre (SVC) hosted a showing in Southampton and JAC Vapour (JV) hosted a showing in Edinburgh. Here Emma from JV and Ian from the SVC share their experiences of hosting the film.
IBVTA: Tell me a little about your screening.
Emma: JAC Vapour recently hosted a screening of ‘A Billion Lives’ in Edinburgh on Tuesday 6th December, inviting local vapers, politicians, press and public health representatives to attend. We were really pleased to see everyone who made it along, although we were disappointed that the turnout was not bigger, and that no invited politicians or local journalists could find time in their schedule. Thanks then to Freddie Dawson at ECigIntelligence who came along to watch the screening.
Ian: Having seen the Billion Lives film twice before, I was keen to promote a screening in Southampton. Despite writing to every Councillor and MP in the Southampton region (twice), I didn't receive one response accepting my invitation to attend. I did however receive several positive and polite responses that supported Vaping in general.
It was encouraging to see that as well as the 61 seats sponsored, another 15 tickets had been purchased independently; so, I expected a half decent audience. The screening was attended by approx. 60/65 people in the end, and those who attended found the content most enlightening.
IBVTA: What were your impressions of the film?
Ian: The documentary is hard hitting and makes no apology for its constant references to the tobacco and pharmaceutical industry's powerful influence over the past 70 years. You are left in no doubt as to what motived general tobacco policies throughout the world and just how high the stakes are when a disruptive technology like vaping appears on the scene.
It was also interesting to hear from extremely high profile public health figures who admit to failing the public by not reacting quickly enough to the constant misinformation in the press, that attempts to undermine the harm reduction gains that vaping offers.
For myself and others I've discussed the film with, the various interview segments with David Goerlitz, the face of Winston cigarettes in the 1980s, offered a vital and credible dimension that left a lump in the throat. His passionate and articulate insight of human endeavour to make sense of the totally nonsensical world in which we live, leaves more questions than answers. These questions still remain unanswered by those responsible for putting profit before health.
Then there’s the unforgivable aspects most smokers of my generation were unaware of; such as how irresponsibly cigarettes had been marketed in the 1950's and 1960's, via Flintstones cartoon characters for example. Then there's the equally irresponsible manner in which US States managed the compensation pay-outs in the 1980s/90s that not only protected tobacco companies’ futures, but highlighted the sheer greed and inept use of the billions of dollars paid to them.
Emma: Taking aim at Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, and even world governments, the documentary pulls few punches, clearly illustrating our early ignorance of the dangers of smoking, which turned to constructive negligence once the tax money began rolling in (not to mention the huge revenues generated by traditional NRT).
Over the course of its 95-minute running time, Biebert talks with world health experts, vaping advocates, and vapers themselves. The film paints a rather bleak picture of a potentially life-saving alternative to smoking being crushed by the might of some of the biggest powers in the world.
Particularly interesting to hear are the opinions of former ‘Winston Man’, David Goerlitz. This former poster boy for the tobacco industry has switched sides in the battle between pro and anti-tobacco lobbies, and listening to him talk, his anger and frustration at his former employers is some of the most powerful material in the film.
Where ‘A Billion Lives’ falls short though, is in its lack of an opposing viewpoint. Biebert’s film rails against the cronyism, and downright corruption, prevalent among public health organisations, and dismisses the many flawed, fraudulent studies into vaping paid for by Big Tobacco/Pharma. Presenting an unanswered view point from the other side, however, risks shutting down debate as well (though it’s unclear whether representatives from Big Tobacco/Pharma were approached for comment but declined).
IBVTA: What will you each take away from the film?
Emma: It's a tough film to watch at times, with some heart-breaking stories of loss and grief. Particularly affecting is of the Australian vape products vendor who has been bankrupted trying to fight for a change in the law which currently bans nicotine-containing e-liquids, while tobacco is freely available.
If there is one message to take away from ‘A Billion Lives’, it is this – ‘Nicotine addicts, tar kills’. Vaping represents a much safer way to continue to use nicotine than smoking. The advocates interviewed in the film take great pains to stress that word – safer. Nothing is without risk, but while an alternative exists which has been proven to be at least 95% less dangerous, it would be a gross failing by public health bodies to ignore, and worse attack, it.
‘A Billion Lives’ then is an important film, and one which should be seen by as many people as possible. While vapers themselves might not find much in the way of new information, current smokers, and those involved in public health can find an alternative viewpoint not represented in the mainstream media. Misinformation not only damages our industry, it’s also sentencing millions of smokers to an early death when a viable alternative is so often publicly smeared.
Ian: The film was an eye opener for many who were left fully exposed to the corrupt nature of tobacco control policy and lack of joined up thinking within the harm reduction academia.
‘A Billion Lives’ should have a lasting impact; sadly, I fear that unless at least one billion people within the next year see this film, its impact will be diluted to the point of being ineffective.
I thank Aaron and the team for delivering a "first of its kind" and hope that between us all, we can shape vaping policies throughout the world, and start to reflect the enormous benefits that can be achieved. There's more than a billion reasons why we should. Governments Worldwide need to find a conscience first.