Replacement Killers

When I first started smoking at the age of twenty, I never paid any heed to the Surgeon General’s warning that cigarette smoking is injurious to health. At twenty, you think that you are almost immortal. Besides there was always a certain degree of romance associated with cigarettes which was further enhanced by the countless Hollywood and Bollywood movies that I grew up with – the Marlboro ads featuring the Marlboro man and so on and so forth. Besides the accessories that come with smoking cigarettes, the ornate silver cigarette cases, the distinctive click of the Zippo lighters, the glowing tip, the thin wisp of smoke curling up from between your fingers – all these I guess make cigarettes even more psychologically addictive. Twenty years later I positively admit the ill effect of cigarettes, the nicotine, the tar, the carbon monoxide that can be the cause of a host of killer diseases like lung cancer and emphysema. I unhesitatingly admit without any reservations that cigarettes are killers.

Growing awareness of the ill effects of smoking along with the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s price hike on all brands of cigarettes by 10% may have reduced smoking by a minor fraction. But what about the replacement killers that comes in the form of gutka, pan masala and other variants of chewable tobacco and are perhaps more addictive than cigarettes? Gutka , the most preferred form of chewing tobacco, is a mixture of crushed areca nuts, tobacco and slaked lime. An artificially flavored mild stimulant, it is cheap and consumed in the same manner as other forms of chewable tobacco. It is the chief cause of oral cancer in our country along with a host of other severe ill effects.

Let us analyze the damage caused to health by gutka and other forms of chewable tobaccos like pan masala which contains many non food grade ingredients and can initiate a host of severe medical conditions. According to Dr. Pankaj Chaturvedi, head and neck cancer surgeon at Tata Memorial Center, “Gutka contains heavy amounts of magnesium as well as calcium carbonate, which are very toxic chemicals. High amounts of magnesium carbonate in the human body can cause respiratory and cardiac depression, while calcium carbonate or lime damages the mucosa, causing chronic mucosal injuries and ulcers in the mouth. Apart from this, gutka can also cause hypertension and cause reproductive health dysfunction.” A report filed by a committee of experts including Dr. Chaturvedi further revealed that gutka and other forms of chewing tobacco can cause “nervous system disorders, liver and kidney diseases, oro-dental problems, metabolic disorders including diabetes and obesity.” The report further mentions that use of areca nut (one of the chief constituents of gutka) has been proved by two separate studies to increase the risks of cirrhosis of liver, kidney stone and chronic kidney problems. And of course loads of carcinogen is present in gutka that makes it the main source of oral cancer in our country. To top it all, the most recent studies have revealed that pan masala and gutka can cause irrepairable genetic damage resulting in structural abnormality of chromosomes and a host of other genetic complications. These reports have been duly supported by a heath report released by the National Institute of Family Welfare, Delhi.

Madhya Pradesh took the first initiative to ban gutka closely followed by Kerala, Bihar and Maharashtra. In total, fourteen states including Goa have banned “the sale, manufacture and distribution ‘gutka ’under the Food Safety and Standard Regulations (2011) that bans food articles containing tobacco”. The government of West Bengal was jolted by the multifaceted ill effects of gutka and the consequences of the users, had mulled over the fact of banning gutka for seven months (gutka was a 20,000 crore industry) after a PIL had been filed in the Calcutta High Court by an NGO, DFY (Doctors for You) as a pledge to ban gutka and pan masala.

Finally the much awaited notification was issued which says, “that in pursuance of regulation 2, 3 and 4 of The Food and Safety Standards (prohibition and restriction on sales) Regulation 2011, the manufacture, storage, sale or distribution of gutka and pan masala containing tobacco and nicotine as ingredients, by whatsoever name it is available in the market is hereby prohibited from the 1st day of May in the state of West Bengal in the interest of public health”.

While Assam, Tamil Nadu and Odisha are contemplating the issue of banning gutka, the fact remains that a good percentage of the population of West Bengal are addicted to gutka and pan masala. My only advice to the heavy gutka users is to stop immediately or they may end up with a hole in the cheek, which will probably not be in vogue with the current trends of piercing and tattoos!