The World Health Organization predicts that within this century a billion people will die from smoking. Despite rising taxes on tobacco and legal victories against tobacco companies in the late 20th Century, millions of people worldwide continue to start and, in turn, get addicted to, smoking.
This confluence of factors caught the attention of Milwaukee filmmaker Aaron Biebert, who was looking for a compelling topic for his first full length feature. Along with that WHO report, he also found what he says are sometimes misleading, sometimes simply false reporting on the emerging industry surrounding e-cigarettes and vaping. As he investigated further, Biebert discovered a much more complex story than he expected.
"Here's a technology that's helping 45 million people quit smoking so far and it's being lied about in the media and fraudulent studies are being published. How is this possible? And a billion people dying - that's a topic that we figured would be pretty big," says Biebert.
With a topic chosen for his first documentary, Bierbert and his Milwaukee-based production team dove head first into the relatively unknown world of vaping technology and how, he contends, anti-smoking groups, tobacco companies, governments and corporations are to blame for the over-regulation, banning, and misinformation of e-cigarettes worldwide.
The result is A Billion Lives, which has its North American premiere at Milwaukee's Pabst Theater on Saturday August 6th.
Biebert and his team traveled across four continents to investigate the rise of tobacco, the development of vaping technology, and the misinformation surrounding both industries throughout history.
Some of the most formidable testimonials came from individuals such as Dr. Derek Yach, former Executive Director of the World Health Organization.
"He said, 'Yeah, we're screwing this up bad. This is bad,' Beibert recalls. "He's the original anti-smoking guy and he's saying 'This stuff, this vaping could save a billion people and we're literally blowing this off.'"
They key difference between smoking and vaping is the smoke, Biebert notes. "If you got to have a lighter to light it on fire, you're creating carcinogens and carbon monoxide and the four to eight thousand chemicals that are in these cigarettes when they're burning."
Those elements are to blame, he says, for the addictive and harmful nature of cigarettes. In contrast, Biebert points to the similarities vaporizer technology has with medical grade inhalers, nebulizers and even some approved products that help people stop smoking. While there are various flavors and models of vaporizers, the nicotine that is inside has similar effects as caffeine in the human body.
The film also features an interview with Hon Lik, the inventor behind the modern e-cigarette, which Lik says he developed to help him quit smoking tobacco. Meanwhile, a former Winston cigarette official talks in the film about the destructive marketing big tobacco thrived on in the mid-twentieth century.
Biebert cites the tobacco industry's efforts to target what it terms "the young, poor, black, and stupid," and says he believes it's working against the vaping industry in order to keep the cash flowing and keep people smoking according. And state governments, he says, have much to gain from allowing people to continue to smoke.
"The more cigarettes sold in a state, the more money they make. I know it's a lot like a tax, but it's actually paid behind the scenes," explains Biebert.
Never a smoker or a vaper himself, Biebert still found the tactics used to obstruct people's path to quitting disturbing. He believes new regulations on the vaping industry will harm people who are trying to stop smoking.
"The people in general that are smoking, about half of them have mental illnesses of some sort, or some sort of mental disability," he says. "And now we're literally saying we're going to take away the one thing you had while you were drowning to hold onto. When you start looking at the money trail you start to say, 'Why?' And it is sad, it makes me sad."
FDA regulations on the industry go into effect on Monday. Biebert says "the prohibition" will put hundreds of small business owners at risk and stifle innovation.
Biebert says his own takeaways from making the film were to realize how wrong his first impressions of people using e-cigarette were - and also how blind to the imminent changes in the industry most Americans are. "How are we so focused on our favorite TV show or Facebook updates that we have not been paying attention to what our own government is doing and we have to wake up," he says. "Because they're not just hurting these people - they're probably hurting us too and we don't even know it."
The film has already premiered in several other countries and received the top two honors from the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. But this Saturday, A Billion Lives has its North American premiere at the Pabst Theater, which is an even bigger occasion for Biebert.
"The bottom line is we really wanted to do something for Milwaukee," he says. With all Milwaukee filmmakers and artists involved in the documentary, the team wanted to "celebrate with our city," and "help our neighbors out."
As he prepares for the film to launch in the United States, Biebert hopes that people will examine what information they are being told to "reset the conversation" and "look at the truth."
"I used to look at these people using these devices, these weird things in their hands and blowing out what looked like smoke and I thought these guys were losers," Biebert states. "And really now I see them and I just want to give them a hug because I know that person was brave enough to face the ridicule and save their life."