Imagine Humphrey Bogart yearning for Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca without a cigarette to puff on. Contemplate, if you can, Sean Connery's James Bond seducing Ursula Andress with a martini in his hand but no gasper between his lips.
It may seem unthinkable, but the film industry warned on Friday that some of the greatest heroes and villains in cinema history could end up with their vital props on the cutting floor when new restrictions on the promotion of smoking are adopted.
Cinema classics as well as contemporary blockbusters might have to undergo savage cuts or face an 18 certificate if cinema owners and film censors are to avoid unlimited fines or even two years in jail, it has been claimed.
The Government is planning to resurrect its Bill aimed at regulating the advertising and promotion of tobacco, which was lost because of lack of legislative time before the election.
But the move has raised anxieties from bodies including the Department of Culture, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and the Society of Film Distributors, which fear films will be caught in the clampdown on tobacco advertising because of sloppy wording in the drafting.
The BBFC has told the Department of Culture that it is vital that the definition of an advertisement is made clearer and that films are excluded.
Otherwise the censors fear they will have to order cuts or award 18 certificates to protect themselves from accusations that they have co-operated with film-makers in the "promotion" of smoking, particularly to children.
"Classifying a film out of the reach of younger audiences could create the preposterous situation where 101 Dalmatians had to be given an 18 certificate because Cruella de Vil smokes," the BBFC told the department.
There was also the issue of vintage films resubmitted for video or DVD classification. "The idea that all Humphrey Bogart films would require an 18 certificate because of his virtual chain smoking activities is clearly ridiculous and to suggest that we could start cutting films like Casablanca is also ridiculous."
The Health minister Yvette Cooper has said she has no intention of censoring movie-makers, and health officials said on Friday that general smoking in films was not their intended target.
But a sudden request from the Department of Health last month to the Department of Culture for its opinion has set alarm bells ringing.
"They haven't tightened up the wording in the Bill. Instead they have asked the department to consult, which implies they're not averse to the wider interpretation," a film insider said.
The fears are compounded by government moves a year ago to tighten up the classification of films containing smoking so that they could not be seen by children thereby putting pressure on film-makers to cut back on smoking if they wanted to win a universal certificate. Although never pursued, the issue has remained on the agenda.
A Society of Film Distributors spokesman said it was in no one's interests for the legislation to hamper the creative community.
It was a question of defining what was meant by tobacco promotion. "Distributors would not think of ever linking up with a tobacco manufacturer to help promote a movie. It's just not appropriate. However, there's a world of difference between that and having characters in movies smoking.
"It's a nonsense for film distributors to be caught unwittingly by legislation that has nothing to do with them at all," the spokesman said.
Even Clive Bates, director of the anti-smoking campaign Ash, said his group would not expect legislation to stop smoking for reasons of drama or characterisation in a film, although they strongly objected to clear product placement.
But he added: "Directors have to realise that they may be inadvertently creating potent advertisements for cigarettes."Reuse content