Where there's smoke

The controversy over anti-smoking warnings resurfaces with the 'Blue Jasmine' kerfuffle.

Woody Allen films tend to have plenty of distractions, ranging from the neurotic tics of his characters to the propensity of the man himself to pop up onscreen. But the auteur has taken exception to an Indian law that mandates the screening of a health ministry short depicting — graphically — the horrors of smoking before a film that contains smoking scenes, deeming such warnings to be far too distracting. Blue Jasmine, hailed as one of Allen's best, will therefore not be released in Indian theatres.

Allen would probably have dismissed — while no doubt blowing out curls of smoke — the very notion of releasing his film here had the 2005 rules, banning smoking scenes in new films, still been in effect. The Delhi High Court struck down the ban in 2009, but the Centre appealed. Finally, it introduced new rules in September last year, which were contested by UTV on the basis that displaying a warning each time the titular Heroine lit up would distract from the film.

But there is evidence to suggest that such warnings work to educate smokers about health risks. A 2006 study of cigarette packet warnings in the US, UK, Canada and Australia published in the British Medical Journal found that graphic, larger and more comprehensive warnings are more effective in communicating health risks. Yet there is also merit in the contention that the insertion of material into a film tampers with the artistic vision of the filmmaker and could slide into censorship. This public health versus art battle seems set to run on — unlike Blue Jasmine in India.

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