Onscreen smoking banned
Films have always had an effect on human behaviour. Movie stars created fashion statements, which the masses followed with excitement and joy. Actors and actresses often made heroes and heroines out of ordinary men and women.
On the flip side, cinema had its negative impact on society. Crime and other forms of unacceptable behaviour were picked up from the screen. Habits too. Humphrey Bogart’s cigarettes created rings of magic that eventually not only felled him to cancer, but also caused pain and suffering to hundreds of thousands of his fans, who loved to ape the American actor. Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct” is said to have provoked a revolution among women, many of whom took to smoking cigarettes.
Hundreds of teenagers have got into the habit of smoking after watching their favourite cinema icons puff away. These have been studied and documented. A recent study in the U.S. revealed that films had a powerful effect on our behaviour. Artistes by smoking on the screen often became an effective link between big tobacco companies and the young with impressionable minds.
A 2003 research conducted in India by the Tobacco Free Initiative of the World Health Organisation saw cinema as an ally of the cigarette. India’s Health Ministry took this finding seriously and has now banned smoking on the screen. Movie companies have been given a few months to clean up the air, after which no character would be allowed to smoke in a film. This ban will extend to television as well.
Movies produced before the ban will have to run scrolls warning of the health hazards of smoking. Foreign films too will have to follow this rule.
India is a signatory to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, an international treaty which requires members States to restrict advertising and sponsorship of tobacco products, and outlaw smoking in public places. India has already banned smoking in public areas. There is no tobacco advertising, and no sporting events are sponsored by tobacco majors.
It is not surprising that this ban has caused a furore in the movie industry. One well-known director said rather caustically that the government had no business to regulate art. Artistic freedom was sacred, and political interference should not be tolerated. “When will the government realise that this is the age of enlightenment”, he wondered.
This argument may be accepted but only to a point. It is a fact that cigarette companies have now turned their attention away from the West, where a serious campaign against smoking has been a major discouraging factor. In some countries, there has been an actual drop in cigarette sales. At least, smoking is not on the rise.
On the contrary, in Asia, where Big Tobacco is now dumping these poison sticks, smoking, especially among the teens, is up. Most smokers the world over will admit that they got into the habit while they were in their teens.
In India, 800,000 people die every year from diseases caused by tobacco. This means 2,200 people die every day, 90 an hour, according to statistics provided by the WHO. With a population of a billion plus men and women, and about 250 million tobacco users, India is major target for cigarette manufacturers. Of these 250 million, nearly two million are between 15 and 24, and this group is projected to grow steeply.
In some important way, Indian cinema has been guilty of this “murder”. It has always glamourised the cigarette. The popular Indian star, Rajnikanth, who was once famous in Japan, had consistently smoked on the screen, much like Bogart. However, Rajnikanth has in his latest movie, “Chandramukhi”, given up smoking, and has instead taken to chewing gum!
The Indian survey also found that the country’s film industry, which produces about 900 movies a year, has willingly let itself be exploited by tobacco companies to “provide business boosting, subliminal lifestyles cues to the youth – about smoking as a normal activity associated with rebellion, independence, self-assertion. Machismo, fashion, romance, power, sex, glamour, celebration and even the language of the dons”.
And 76 per cent of Indian films show smoking!
And why do they do it? India’s Union Health Minister, Ambumani Ramadoss, says that he has definite information that tobacco majors were paying money to actors and producers to publicise their products.
Analysts agree that this is a strong possibility, but to ban smoking outright on the screen may be a rather strong dose of medicine. What they advocate is a self-regulatory mechanism in the movie industry that will serve as a watchdog to ensure that smoking is deglamourised, and there is no undue projection of this evil.
(This story was posted on this website on July 1 2005)