India has banned depiction of smoking in films and television programs as part of its war against tobacco use. The World Health Organization has welcomed the move, but filmmakers have denounced the ban as an infringement of artistic freedom.

The latest Bollywood hit, "Bubbly and Bunti," is dominated by scenes of Indian film icon Amitabh Bacchan lighting up as he plots how to [arrest] two [criminals].

But the government says films made after August 1 will no longer be able to depict such scenes, and older movies showing images of smoking will have to carry a health warning. The same rules will apply to television programs.

The government says the new regulations are part of efforts to check the rising use of tobacco among youngsters.

The measure comes two years after a World Health Organization report said smoking in Bollywood films was being increasingly associated with fun, fashion, glamor and success - and was influencing millions of youngsters throughout South Asia to take to tobacco products.

Vineet Gill, from WHO's anti-tobacco cell in New Delhi, said the study showed that instances of the "good guys" or heroes smoking on screen have risen dramatically over the past decade. "He will throw a cigarette in the air, almost flip it most dramatically, and then catch it in his mouth, all these kind of things glamorize the whole act of smoking or using tobacco products to young people?a child watching somewhere in some village in this country, when he sees that he does not realize that is bad for him. All he sees is his idol is doing it, so it must be a great thing to do," he said. "So all the public health measures, all the anti-tobacco messages you send out actually go into the dustbin."

The movie industry and Indian newspapers have denounced the ban as ridiculous and absurd, and say it is tantamount to censorship.

A consultant to India's entertainment industry, Anil Nagareth, said films reflect society and life, and the act of smoking is simply used to illustrate a personality. "We are not government documentary makers, we are filmmakers. Bollywood and Hollywood both have used smoking as a means to promote a character. They have not gone to promote smoking per se," he said.

Well-known filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt calls the ban an infringement of "freedom," and said the role of heroes in inspiring the young is overstated. He said movie stars frequently have little effect in getting other messages across to the public. "When you simplify things you falsify them," he said. "I do have a tendency to accept that film stars are role models, but my question is when the same icon talks against HIV Aids, and talks about using a condom, and having safe sex, why isn't the role model taken seriously?"

But anti-tobacco campaigners are happy with the ban. They say 800,000 Indians die each year from smoking-related illnesses and any measure that could cut that number is welcome.

Last year, India outlawed smoking in public places, and imposed a ban on the sponsoring of sporting events by tobacco firms.