Bollywood fumes at smoking ban

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The Independent Online

The days when Bollywood fans could sit in hushed cinemas and watch Rajnikanth perform his legendary cigarette flip or heart-throb Shah Rukh Khan's chiselled physique become wreathed in smoke-rings are soon to be over.

The days when Bollywood fans could sit in hushed cinemas and watch Rajnikanth perform his legendary cigarette flip or heart-throb Shah Rukh Khan's chiselled physique become wreathed in smoke-rings are soon to be over.

Come 1 August, the industry will be banned from producing any movie featuring smoking, and cinemas will be obliged to flash up health warnings over any scene in which an actor from a film predating the ban is shown lighting up.

The tough regulations announced by the Indian government yesterday provoked outrage in Bollywood, with one director condemning them as "absurd".

"One would understand a ban on surrogate advertising, but to completely ban [smoking] is ridiculous, a joke taken too far," Mahesh Bhatt told The Times of India.

But the Delhi government stands by its view that the ban will help dissuade impressionable young people from taking up the habit.

The World Health Organisation says tobacco kills five million people a year and, according to government statistics, more than 800,000 Indians die annually from smoking-related illness.

"As much as 40 per cent of health problems are caused from tobacco consumption. It makes sense to decrease it," the Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss said on World No Tobacco Day. "More and more young people and women are taking up tobacco use."

Bollywood, which turns out three times more films than Hollywood, often depicts its macho heroes with cigarettes or cheaper-priced hand-rolled bidis dangling from their lips.

The WHO, which claims that when a cinematic heart-throb lights a cigarette his young fans are three times more likely to do the same, welcomed the ban as a sign that Delhi is taking the silver-screen health threat seriously.

"Portrayal of attractive people smoking has an influence on young people as some of them identify with those on the screens," said Harsaran Pandey, the WHO's spokeswoman for south-east Asia.

The Indian government has insisted the regulations will not impinge upon artistic freedom - but film-makers disagree.

"How can such a ban be imposed?" asked a film director, Shabana Azmi. "Films are not made in a vacuum - they are reflections of life. How can a character not be shown as smoking a cigarette if the script so demands? The government should think through this step."

Critics suggest the government would be better advised to raise awareness among the young of the dangers of smoking or even lobby the modelling industry in an attempt to remove some of the glamour from the habit.

"In a democracy like India, how can you impose such guidelines in the virtual world?" asked another director, Mahesh Bhatt. "If the government has the courage, it should ban smoking in real life."

The new law also obliges manufacturers to display the tar and nicotine content on tobacco products, and bans the sale of cigarettes from vending machines or by anyone under 18.

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