Few health campaigners have been as tough on cigarettes as Simon Chapman, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney. Advertising ban? You got him at ‘ad’. Plain packaging? The dirtier green the better. Age restrictions, protection against passive inhalation? He’s your man.

But that won’t stop him incurring the displeasure of the World Health Organisation (WHO) for his latest contribution to the debate. You see, in an article for the academic site The Conversation, the good professor has had the gall to question the WHO’s wisdom in pursuing a ban against the representation of smoking in the arts.

You may remember that, during the Eighties and Nineties, cigarettes were airbrushed from all sorts of notables’ pictures: from Jean-Paul Sartre to Sigmund Freud; from American stamps to French adverts and British museum exhibits.

These sort of initiatives delighted the WHO, which then decided the movie industry should be compelled to follow suit – and Photoshop the habit out of all life depicted on the goggle-box or silver screen. Indeed, so keen have they been that three times they have issued a report calling for – as a first step – an adult rating for any film that shows smoking.

Luckily, this appears to be a bridge too far, even for LA’s luvvies. As Chapman says, they don’t buy the allegations that there are back-door product-placement deals going on: ‘With Hollywood being located in California, where smoking rates are now below 10 per cent and anti-smoking sentiment very widespread, whistle-blowers within the movie industry would have surely by now exposed such deals if they were occurring.’

But the studios’ opposition to WHO interference also has a deeper, philosophical basis. Because if they agreed that any portrayal of smoking – good or bad – is an encouragement to smoke, then logic would dictate that the same is true of murder, violence, drinking, speeding; in fact any human failing or weakness.

By extension, the reasoning would even apply to books, plays, paintings, songs – all the arts – with farcical consequences. Never mind his cocaine injections; how long would Sherlock Holmes’ pipe survive in this brave new world? In music, ‘Have You Got a Light, Boy?’ would be deleted from the archive, Keef would have to suck lollipops, and David Bowie’s ‘Time’ would be missing its first four lines.

People have been debating the limits of representational art for thousands of years. These days, a comparison between the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear and the cop’s ear-removal in Reservoir Dogs is frequently made. (Hot-poker crimes have decreased in the last 500 years, so stop complaining about razor-related plot twists.) In freer societies, the general agreement is that censorship, except in exceptional circumstances, is a Bad Thing.

Which is Chapman’s killer point, really. As he says: ‘Authoritarian and despotic nations are fond of restricting cultural expression for political or religious fundamentalist reasons. But many relish not living under regimes like North Korea’s or [under] Taliban justice.’ It’s a slippery slope – you start by policing the imagination, you end up chopping off heads – and indefensible to push society down it.

Popla is unlikely to be in Sydney any time soon, so we won’t catch any of the Prof’s lectures. But if we could, we’d treat him like a rock star. He is due – not just from smokers but from anyone who loves liberty – a massed lighter salute.

by Winston Smith