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? Aaron Biebert’s A Billion Lives claims so. It is 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 documentary 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 sincerity of Biebert’s concern about smoking-related cancer is not to be undermined (although one quickly tires of the film’s constant references to the “billion lives” it says cigarette smoking will claim this century). One should also not dismiss his concerns about the hasty regulations that have been slapped on electronic cigarettes, which many believe (correctly or not) to be a healthful alternative. But how seriously can one take a documentary whose entire explanation of 1998’s historic Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement is delivered by a male model?
Biebert is unmistakeably 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. He also raises nagging concerns about the interest that governments have in the taxes derived from cigarette sales. But he cannot just give a title card claiming that “governments collect more money from cigarettes than retailers, farmers, & Big Tobacco combined” without backing it up with any solid proof.
In making the case that vapor devices are both a sureshot way to break the habit and so very 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 electronic cigarettes are completely banned in some countries where conventional cigarettes are readily available is sufficient to make anyone suspect a conspiracy.