'A Billion Lives': Film Review

A BILLION LIVES Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of A Billion Lives
A provocative doc with a dubious pedigree.

First-time filmmaker Aaron Biebert presents theories about a conspiracy to kill the nascent vaping industry.

Are e-cigarettes a panacea whose potential to end smoking-related deaths is being squashed by an unholy alliance of governments, Big Pharma and Big Tobacco? So claims Aaron Biebert's A Billion Lives, a technically polished but eyebrow-raising documentary advocating for the businesses selling and the consumers using various vaping technologies. For non-smokers who don't closely follow these issues, the doc raises important questions about opposition to smoke-free devices. But just as one should be wary of tobacco-safety data produced with tobacco-industry money, skeptical audiences will have a hard time putting too much stock in a doc so strongly aligned with vape entrepreneurs. Theatrical prospects are slim, but the vast community of e-cig enthusiasts should ensure a healthy life on video formats. The rest of us will await a more objective investigation.

Biebert is a first-time feature director who started various businesses before coming to making industrial and music videos. In his narration and onscreen appearances here, we might wonder if we're listening to a serial entrepreneur who wanted to enter the vape marketplace but, seeing how threatened it was by regulation, decided to make a movie about it instead.

That's not to deny the sincerity of his concern about smoking-related cancer (although one quickly tires of the film's constant references to the "billion lives" it says cigarette smoking will claim this century) or to dismiss his concerns about the hasty regulations that have been slapped on e-cigs, which many believe (correctly or not) to be a healthful alternative. But how seriously can one take a doc whose entire explanation of 1998's historic Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement is delivered by a male model? David Goerlitz, the "Winston Man" who publicly disavowed cigarettes in the 1980s, has made a livelihood out of fighting Big Tobacco — but even so, some perspective from journalists, economists or politicians would be more useful.

The film's other interviewees similarly fail to inspire much trust. We may be very interested to hear that, when used outside of traditional cigarettes, nicotine "doesn't seem to be so addictive." But is Louise Ross, identified as a representative of something called the "Stop Smoking Service," an authority on this matter?

Biebert is obviously correct to look skeptically at anti-vape data originating from institutions with an interest in the status quo — though he offers no studies to back up his assumption that they're safe — and he raises troubling concerns about the interest governments have in the taxes derived from cigarette sales. But he can't just throw up a title card claiming that "governments collect more money from cigarettes than retailers, farmers, & Big Tobacco combined" without backing it up with any attribution.

Few viewers will require the human-interest anecdotes we get here, about interviewees who have lost loved ones to cancer or struggled to quit smoking themselves. But in making the case that vapor devices are both a surefire way to break the habit and so safe that we should encourage them as an alternative, the movie needs verifiable data and credible, disinterested interviewees. Even in their absence, though, news that e-cigs are completely banned in some countries where conventional cigarettes are readily available is enough to make anyone suspect a conspiracy.

Production company: Milwaukee Film Company
Director-executive producer: Aaron Biebert
Producers: Jennifer Biebert, Jimi Jake Shaw, Jesse Hieb, Shem Biebert
Director of photography: Jimi Jake Shaw
Editors: Aaron Biebert, Jimi Jake Shaw, Jennifer Biebert
Composers: Steven Pitzl and Timothy Wolf

Not rated, 94 minutes