The Indian government acknowledges that the country is facing a smoking epidemic likely to cause up to 1 million deaths every year. A survey suggested that one in three adults in India smokes or chews tobacco, very few quit and second-hand smoke remains a big problem, exposing gaps in the country’s tobacco control efforts.
India has the highest incidence of oral cancer in the world. Tobacco chewing has made cancer of the head and neck the No. 1 cancer in India. 40% of the cancers are mouth and related types. According to survey conducted by de- addiction centres in Mumbai, there are over 2-3 lakh gutkha victims registered in their centres. These are a very small proportion of the actual number gutkha users. The average cost of treating a cancer patient is Rs. 3.5 lakh which is steep in a poor country with no healthcare benefits.
4 million children, below the age of 15 years, regularly use tobacco while still in school due to easy availability and low pricing. Consumption of smokeless tobacco by children and adolescents increased after gutkha was introduced in 1980's. In a study done with 30,000 municipal school children in Mumbai, 50% of them consumed 1-2 sachets of gutkha on a daily basis. Teenagers started consuming 5 to 15 packets of gutkha daily. It was revealed, that 75% of municipal school students were using tobacco as early as 10 years of age. According to this study, 50% of 13 to 15 year-olds think that tobacco use makes them appear smart and attractive.
Since children started using gutkha 6 or 7 years ago, doctors fear that an epidemic of oral cancer will soon hit India. Children, aged between 11 and 12 years, are becoming victims of pre- cancerous growths after just 2 years of consuming tobacco. A daily intake of an average of ten pouches of gutkha per day would mean exceeding the recommended daily intake of lead, arsenic and copper. Lead is particularly dangerous for youngsters because excessive consumption of the same lowers the IQ. So, it could also affect the academic performance of children.
There is an increase in frequency of smoking and smokeless tobacco consumption among females. Women who consume 3 cigarettes per day are at the risk of falling prey to heart attacks as well as death from other causes. When pregnant women smoke, carbon monoxide and nicotine passes into their lungs and subsequently into their bloodstream thereby reducing the oxygen supply to their unborn baby. As a result their babies are more likely to suffer from asthma attacks, chest infections and colds later on in life. Also, they are more likely to be born prematurely and are underweight.
Mishri use, which is common in women, can lead to low birth weight babies and a reproductive effect of lowering the sex ratio. Paan chewing among women in India has made oral cancer more common than breast cancer.