Tuesday 21 June 2016

A Review Of A Billion Lives ... I Didn't Hate It

Last time I wrote about the A Billion Lives film it attracted quite a bit of reaction. In fact it attracted the third most numerous comments in this blog's history.  I was also called all sorts of names by both smokers and vapers, which probably means I wasn't that far wrong in what I was saying.

Well, I finally got to see it as a preamble to the Global Forum on Nicotine conference on the 16th of June in an incredibly dark Warsaw Kinoteca cinema. It's not your usual multiplex, situated as it is in the old communist Palace of Culture building.

In case you were wondering, yes they sell popcorn and Coca-Cola and were heavily promoting Finding Dory as we entered the place. Stalin would spin in his grave and I'm sure it made some of the 'public health' conference attendees tut to themselves as well. Good. 

Having read early reviews of the film I was expecting to hate the thing. This one, for example, appeared to suggest it was mostly an excoriating attack on the tobacco industry which - in my humble opinion - is not the biggest enemy of vaping by a long chalk. 

I was sat next to forthright Fergus who has had his say on it here. I certainly wasn't as enthusiastic as Fergus about the production but I have to say my fears that I'd hate it were thankfully not realised, in fact I thought it was a good film. 

Not that it started out that way. The first 27 minutes (I know because I noted the time) was solely taken up by historic accounts of tobacco industry malfeasance from decades ago - at one point I turned to a fellow attendee and said that I thought the production was about e-cigs not the history of smoking. However it later became clear why this tactic was employed as Director Aaron Biebert tidied it all up at the end, more on that later. 

Once we got to the overarching point of the film - the attack on e-cigs and vaping - the barbs came thick and fast. Astutely identifying the Bootleggers and Baptists coalition which has been behind every moral panic in human history, Biebert did fire his first salvo at the tobacco industry, but only briefly. It's true that companies like Reynolds in the US have tried to close down their smaller competitors in the nascent vaping business, but mostly they've been scrambling to get on the bandwagon themselves so Biebert soon turned to the real villains. 

Being US-centric, he focussed on the appalling intiatives being employed by American states to keep revenue rolling in from the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) of 1998. For those who are not familiar with it, it was a settlement which handed local authorities in the US billions of dollars of funding from the sale of tobacco to spend on just about whatever they chose to. Being politicians they obviously spent it unwisely and some spent it before they'd even received it! This, naturally, leads to a situation where the prospect of a decline in smoking could bankrupt some of them and led to disgraceful campaigns such as California's lie-fest Still Blowing Smoke which Biebert assaulted with venom. 

He also turned extensively on both the pharmaceutical industry and their overt lobbying to destroy e-cigs which are contributing to a disatrous decline in their nicotine replacement therapy products (patches, chewing gum and other abject failures) and also pointed out that the tobacco control industry is a $15 billion movement which sees its future severely threatened by a product which quite simply doesn't need their input unless they forcibly insert their unwanted, unnecessary, mendacious, money-grubbing tentacles into the debate to try to make themselves relevant. Health, after all, can take a back seat when there are careers to save, or as Fergus put it.
Most disturbing of all, though, is the revelation that tobacco control themselves have a lot to lose if smokers switch to vaping en masse. Biebert informs us that tobacco control is far from a handful of dedicated activists scraping by on public donations; it’s a $15 billion industry that gives a lot of people very comfortable salaries. Is it a surprise that they dislike threats to their income and status? Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but the fact that people whose business should be protecting our health are willing to sacrifice it for money is not a comfortable one.
Explains a lot, doesn't it?

Biebert rolled out an impressive roll call of public health voices to prove the points he was making and the credits at the end of the film highlighted those who declined to take part, they being - as you can imagine - generally those who routinely lie about vaping so were probably not keen about doing so in public and on film. 

Overall, I came away thinking that Biebert - contrary to my expectations - had produced a pretty good summary of the vaping debate and the disingenuous people lined up against the concept for reasons that have little to do with health or, indeed, choice. 

If I had any criticisms they were minor. Such as that the sound bites were sometimes far too long and could have been more snappy. By that I mean that there were many occasions where the vox pops lingered beyond which would have been most effective, there were times where a killer line was not at the end of the clip but instead got superseded by something less relevant. Also, I could have done with less of Biebert looking to the side of the camera as if he was an expert himself, it almost seemed at times that he was missing a commentator or two that he wanted to put there so inserted himself instead ... oh hold on, there was that list of those who declined so maybe he did. Other mostly inconsequential stuff too which are hardly worth mentioning. 

I did say that I'd get back to the long-winded beginning detailing the MSA in a lot of depth. Well, we here are well aware of the history but many will have no clue about any of it. It may have seemed tedious and unnecessary but if the film is truly intended for a wider audience it's very much worth highlighting the 1998 settlement in detail and describing how it was enthusiastically hailed as a massive boost to public health, only to subsequently turn out to be just a politician's cash cow. And Biebert did a good job of making sure you remember that in the crucial last round-up of the arguments he had presented.  

As for the "billion lives" stat which causes so much controversy, well I have to say that without being overtly shoved in the face of tobacco control, it was subtlely hinted that this was a 'public health' figure being referenced. Clive Bates (who has written on the factoid here) specifically mentioned that it was the number of lives 'claimed' by tobacco controllers during one of his contributions, so as I've said before can be justified as a film title in my opinion. 

So no, I didn't hate it, in fact I liked it. I think it makes a good contribution to the debate and a positive one. And I really didn't expect that at all.

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