When actor Rajnikanth stylishly flipped a wad of chewing gum into his mouth, instead of the usual nicotine stick, in the film ‘Chandramukhi,’ the anti-tobacco activists were rejoicing.

Considering how everything the Superstar does is a trendsetter, they expected the entire industry in the South to fall in line, sooner or later. The significance of deterrence for the cause of anti-smoking cannot be underrated. As a WHO document Smoke-Free Movies: From Evidence to Action, indicates “Imagery emanating from motion pictures continues to provide misleadingly positive impressions of tobacco use. These images have now been identified as a risk factor for smoking initiation among adolescents.”

Former Union Minister for Health Anbumani Ramadoss, who led the campaign against smoking in movies, says statistics show that 52 per cent of children have their first puff because of film celebrities. Tobacco is said to be the strongest cause of cancer. Tobacco-related cancers reported by the population-based Cancer Registries constitute 56.4 per cent and 44.9 per cent of cancers in males and females, respectively.

The top five or six cancers in men are all tobacco-related: lung, oral cavity, larynx, oesophagus and pharynx. In women, the leading cancer sites include those related to tobacco: cervix, oral cavity, oesophagus and lung.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control begins to be implemented. Article 13 of the treaty lists measures to substantially limit movie smoking. In India, Bollywood has been the primary measure of implementation. A 2004 study commissioned to study changes in Bollywood’s tobacco imagery after the Tobacco Control Act (2003) was passed, found that the “imagery had markedly increased in the wake of tobacco advertising bans in other media.”

When this was brought to the notice of the government, it amended the TCA to include a ban on all depictions of tobacco products and their use in film or television. The amended rules indicated that no individual can display tobacco products or their use. In films made prior to the notification, a scroll will have to warn the audience about smoking.

“Media plays a huge role and we intend to launch research on smoking and Tamil cinema as part of the ‘Smoke-free Chennai’ project,” says Prasanna Kannan, State consultant for Tobacco Control. The State has also sent notices to those involved with recent films including ‘Vettaikaran’, ‘Aasal’ and ‘Yogi’ to remove smoking scenes.

Earlier this week, actor and producer Prabhu clarified that ‘Aasal’ starring actor Ajith featured awareness messages and the actor, too, had incorporated a message on the perils of smoking in the film.

While film-makers agree that carrying messages on the hazards of smoking or drinking is important in the awareness perspective, they also point to some challenges in adopting the practice. According to director K. S. Ravikumar, it is difficult to portray the bad guy without such attributes. The industry earlier saw smoking as a style quotient enhancer for heroes, but now, the scene has changed. “We hardly find heroes smoking on screen, but portraying the villain remains a challenge with these restrictions,” Mr. Ravikumar says, adding that an awareness message is carried right at the beginning of his latest film ‘Jaggubhai’.

Actor Silambarasan believes that spreading awareness is vital. “What would perhaps be more effective is weaving in information on the harmful effects of smoking or drinking into the script, like Gautham Menon did in ‘Vaaranam Aayiram.’”

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Meera SrinivasanJune 28, 2012