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ENTERTAINMENT

Bollywood smoking ban sparks controversy

By Leo Juarez for CNN

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A child holds a cigarette in front of a poster of a Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar.

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(CNN) -- India's recent decision to ban smoking in movies and on television has ignited controversy in the popular Bollywood film industry, despite government officials' claims that such scenes glamorize tobacco use.

Bollywood, the most prolific film producer in the world, has a long history of portraying heroes and villains with cigarettes or hand-rolled "bidis" dangling from their lips.

But starting October 2, new films and television shows will be prohibited from showing actors smoking.

While some actors have expressed support for the new restrictions, filmmakers claim that the government is infringing on artistic expression. Indian director Shekhar Kapur, who helmed the 1997 Oscar-nominated film "Elizabeth," expressed concerns that the new regulations could lead to further censorship.

"The Indian government has always thought themselves able to do whatever they feel is necessary to curtail artistic freedoms," Kapur said.

"The fear is not that we have to stop showing people smoking. The fear is that this is the beginning of a series of bans."

Critics call the new ban a gimmick and insist that the government should focus instead on enforcing the ban on smoking in public places, which went into effect in May 2004.

Even Censor Board chief Sharmila Tagore called it "a decision taken in haste and very unaesthetic in taste."

Health officials claim that on-screen smoking has a significant impact on Indian youth and that a ban would "protect the lives of millions of children who could be addicted to smoking under the influence of movies, " Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss told an Indian newspaper last week.

The government also wants to require onscreen health warnings for older films and TV shows featuring cigarettes. But India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which governs the broadcast industry, advised health officials earlier this month that a retroactive ban would be impractical.

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An Indian cancer patient looks at a poster depicting a Bollywood actor in Bhopal.

A 2003 World Health Organization report estimated that India is home to approximately 250 million tobacco users and that more than 800,000 Indians die each year from smoking-related illnesses.

Dr. Khalil Rahman, regional adviser in New Delhi for the WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative, said he thinks the government will prevail because the ban has found support among Indian citizens.

"The general public appreciates this," Rahman said. "They're saying that this is one area that hasn't been addressed until now."

Shekhar said he believes that the government's intentions were good, but thinks that health officials should have approached filmmakers and actors directly.

"An alternative approach would be to get all of us together and say: 'How do we solve this problem? How can we help?," he said. "It's got to come from us. It can't come from a ban."

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