Films with smoking may get adults-only certificate

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Cinemas may be forced to place 15 and 18 certificates on any film showing smoking scenes – regardless of their official classification – if a radical anti-smoking manifesto is approved today.

A coalition of councillors from 10 councils in the Manchester area are hoping their "challenging and audacious" manifesto will be the start of a fresh campaign to step up anti-smoking measures – and improve health – in an area of Britain with some of the lowest average life expectancies.

But artistic groups and pro-smoking campaigners have criticised the proposals as an attack on artistic expression and an unacceptable further infringement of their civil liberties since smoking in restaurants and pubs was banned last year.

One of the more radical proposals put forward by the Greater Manchester Health Commission includes plans to cut off all funding to local theatres that stage a play which includes smoking in it despite such performances being protected by law.

Although actors smoking on stage has been banned in Scotland and Northern Ireland it is still allowed in England and Wales as long as "the artistic integrity of a performance makes it appropriate for a person to smoke".

Local councils, meanwhile, are also able to override the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), the official body that certifies film ratings. On previous occasions local councils have used this exemption to ban controversial films from showing within their area such as The Exorcist and Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Equity, the trade union that represents performers and artists, said yesterday that while they have always supported banning smoking in theatres, forbidding on-stage smoking was a step too far.

"It would be ridiculous to introduce a blanket ban that doesn't take into account the artistic integrity of a performance or the circumstance," said an Equity spokesman, Martin McGrath. "What if there was a play about someone dying of lung cancer? Would you honestly ban the protagonists of that play from portraying how smoking has given them a disease?"

Simon Clark, director of the pro-smoking group Forest, added: "These are obscene proposals with elements of totalitarianism. The number of people who have ever complained about smoking on-stage can probably be counted on one hand. It's really quite worrying because it shows just how extreme the anti-smoking lobby is becoming."

Mr Clark rejected the Greater Manchester Healthcare Commission's concerns that smoking in films or on stage encouraged young people to take up cigarettes.

"The implication that if we see smoking on stage we might be tempted to take it up is ludicrous," he said. "Teenagers take up smoking because of peer pressure and often because their parents do. Cinema and theatre is meant to reflect the real world. To only allow a world where no one smokes at all would be artificial and there is only one word to describe it: censorship."

Cliff Morris, leader of Bolton council, will introduce the proposals to a meeting of nine fellow council leaders today.

They will also be asked to endorse further anti-smoking steps that would include banning smoking in cars and on television.