Director: Aaron Biebert.
The solidly crafted three-act structure of Aaron Biebert’s A Billion Lives provides a compelling, infuriating case study in big business dirty tricks. That the tobacco conglomerates are guilty of poisoning the global population and crushing the potentially life-saving emergence of a smoke-free alternative won’t be fresh news to educated audiences who seek out these types of paradigm-shifting, talking-head advocacy efforts, but the slick visuals and thoroughly researched arguments make A Billion Lives one of the best recent examples of the booming genre.
The title is derived from the number of people that might have been saved had ‘Big Tobacco’ not conspired to kill off the e-cigarette, or ‘vaping’, industry in its infancy. The liquid-based steam inhaler movement, which emerged in the late 2000’s and boomed, briefly, in the first half of this decade, was finding favour as a far less toxic option for nicotine-&-tar traditionalists, the removal of the ‘smoke’ from smoking representing a seismic shift in health side effects. However, Biebert’s even-tempered diatribe convinces that the dreams of e-cig entrepreneurs were extinguished by corporations with vested interests all things traditional cigarette.
The first act is a pacey recounting of the birth of the global tobacco industry, entertainingly repackaging already widely known facts into a timeline that brings us to the present. The personal drama that drives the first 30 minutes and infuses the whole film is that of David Goerlitz, the macho face of smoking in the 1980s when he was the ‘Winston Cigarettes Guy’ and who now speaks loudly and proudly against the industry. The second act focuses in on the invention and expansion of e-cigarette technology, while the last act points a bitter, accusing finger at the forces that shut down the sector.
The director’s collection of experts runs the gamut from high-ranking bureaucrats in the health and primary industry sectors to everyman business people to everyday addicts. Each has their own spin on how billion dollar profits and the greasy-palm tactics of both commercial and governmental interests subverted vaping industry growth; most extraordinary are notions that even anti-smoking bodies favoured self-interest over the greater good and helped quash the e-cig momentum.
Biebert plays first-person narrator, posing on-camera observations that extend his voice-over contributions to fourth-wall breaking. Given the profile he affords himself, he may have declared whether the film is a personal plea; he never states what drew him to the e-cig debate or whether he is a ‘vaper’. Where he excels as a storyteller is in the balance he finds between issue-driven details and the more human aspects of the narrative.
A Billion Lives doesn’t quite impact with the knockout punch of Josh Fox’s Gasland or Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, the polished standard bearers for the ‘Big Business is Evil’ factual-film genre. But Biebert’s lean production team nevertheless land some telling blows against the global industrial complex that unjustly bolsters profits at great cost to the planet’s population. Even non-smokers, who may otherwise find it hard to sympathise with the nicotine addict, will be drawn into the injustice and dark manipulation Biebert captures.