Broadcasting watchdog bares its teeth at Tom and Jerry over smoking scenes

For more than 60 years, Tom and Jerry have entertained children with their scraps and axe-wielding chases. But now they are facing censorship from the broadcasting watchdog - for smoking.

A viewer of the digital children's channel Boomerang complained to Ofcom about two Tom and Jerry episodes in which Tom and another character were depicted smoking.

The regulator has warned broadcasters that they could face censure if they show cartoons in which smoking is "encouraged, glamorised or condoned".

Children's television channels will have to demonstrate a high level of editorial justification for not editing out scenes in which smoking is shown, even in cartoons that date from an era where tobacco use was commonplace. Campaigners against a smoking ban said the ruling was "ludicrous".

The complaint concerned two episodes of the cartoon called "Texas Tom" and "Tennis Chumps" which were shown repeatedly on Boomerang this year. An unnamed member of the public complained that the scenes were "not appropriate in a cartoon aimed at children". "Texas Tom" was made in 1950 and shows Tom trying to impress a female cat by rolling, lighting and smoking a cigarette with one hand. In "Tennis Chumps", made in 1949, Tom plays a match against his long-term rival Butch, who is seen smoking a large cigar.

Ofcom did not have to uphold or reject the complaint because it was resolved by the company Turner, which holds Boomerang's broadcasting licence. Yesterday, Turner Broadcasting said it was voluntarily editing smoking scenes out of more than 1,700 episodes of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, including Tom and Jerry, Scooby Doo, The Jetsons and The Flintstones.

A spokesman for Turner Broadcasting said: "We recognise that it is not suitable for cartoons aimed at children to portray smoking in a cool context and has additionally pledged to review the entire Hanna-Barbera catalogue to remove scenes that appear to glamorise or encourage smoking."

In its ruling, Ofcom said: "We recognise that these are historic cartoons, most of them having been produced in the 1940s, 50s and 60s at a time when smoking was more generally accepted.

"Depictions of smoking may not be problematic given the context, but broadcasters need to make a judgement about the extent to which they believe a particular scene may or may not genuinely influence children. We note that in Tom and Jerry, smoking usually appears in a stylised manner and is frequently not condoned."

Neil Rafferty, of the pro-smoking pressure group Forest, said: "This is just totally absurd. Tom and Jerry cartoons portray scenes of extreme violence and yet that seems to be deemed appropriate for children while smoking isn't. Ofcom has chosen to leap on the anti-smoking bandwagon and join the extremists in their opposition to what is an entirely lawful activity."

He added: "This could set an extremely worrying precedent when it comes to censorship."

Amanda Sandford, of the anti-smoking group Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), said: "I think the Ofcom ruling seems sensible. We would not want to see a situation where historical cartoons were fundamentally changed and reconfigured to cut out a smoking scene because that would smack of censorship.

"But if the smoking is incidental to the action I see no reason why a scene shouldn't be removed. There is clear evidence that children who see films where their favourite character is smoking are more likely to find it acceptable and are more likely to take up smoking themselves."

A study in the medical journal The Lancet suggested that teenagers who watch films in which actors smoke are three times more likely to take up the habit themselves. Another study, published in the journal Paediatrics, found that more than half of children's cartoons portrayed smoking and drinking.

A ban on smoking in public places is due to come into effect in England next July, while a similar law is in place in Scotland.