Gutka ban: Cancer centre heads write to PM

Medicos call for total ban on the smokeless tobacco products rather than just their packaging material


Sonal Matharu | April 12, 2011

To put pressure on the government prior to the supreme court hearing on the ban on plastic sachets of smokeless tobacco packets on Wednesday, directors of 16 regional cancer centres in India wrote letters individually to prime minister Manmohan Singh urging him to ban the sale and manufacturing of these products and not just the packing material.

A copy of the letters was also mailed to health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad where the directors indicate a change in trend observed over the decades as the number of mouth cancers caused due to consumption of gutka and pan masala have risen sharply all over the country. 

“Oral cancer has now become more prominent with the extensive use of smokeless tobacco. Earlier more cases were recorded of throat and lung cancer due to smoking, now we see people between 20 to 40 years old suffering from mouth cancer,” said Dr Pankaj M Shah, honoraray director, Gujarat Cancer and Research Institute.

Dr Rajendra A Badwe, director, Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai, Maharashtra, writes in his letter that pan masala has supari in it which is an addictive substance and has cancer causing properties. “Since pan masala and gutka are marketed as mouth fresheners, its habit starts at a very young age. If we need to reduce the oral cancer burden in india, we need to control the rampant habit of tobacco and areca nut chewing,” he wrote in his letter.

A senior official from the health ministry said that the letters ministry received were part of the response filed in the court for banning plastic sachets for smokeless tobacco products. The supreme court banned the sale of chewing tobacco in plastic sachets from March 2011. A bench of justices GS Singhvi and AK Ganguly gave the direction while hearing petitions filed by tobacco manufacturers challenging Rajasthan high court’s order on such a ban in the state. While hearing the case, the court asked the health ministry to file a report on the harmful effects of smokeless tobacco products.

“The ministry had a consultation with the stakeholders earlier this month and banning smokeless tobacco products was considered, but right now we cannot say if this step would be immediately taken,” the official added.

As per the health ministry, one-third Indians consume smokeless tobacco. Chewing gutka also leads to a precancerous condition called oral sub mucous fibrosis where the muscles in the mouth lose their ability to stretch.

“Not only men, but school children and housewives are also addicted to chewing tobacco products. Many people keep gutka it their mouth even while sleeping, so this is worse than smoking a cigarette,” said Dr R K Chaudhary, director, Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Treatment and Research Institute, Bikaner, Rajasthan.

“Our government is spending huge amount of money on cancer control programme and on the other hand we are not removing the root causes of cancers, that is, tobacco and gutka which are known causes of cancer development,” Chaudhary wrote in his letter.

Tobacco is the single most important risk factor for cancer, cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases. Tobacco prevalence is very high in the north eastern region as a result, 55 to 60 percent of all cancers in the region are tobacco related.

As per global school personnel survey 2006, 34.3 percent children between 13 to 15 years consume tobaco in the north eastern region. Tobacco products are distributed free in and around educational institutions, hospitals and hospital premises, wrote Dr A C Kataki, director, Dr Bhubaneshwar Borooah Cancer Institute, Guwahati, Assam.

“In the city of Guwahati alone, gutka worth Rs 12 lakh is sold everyday. 6.5 lakh sachets of gutka and 3.2 lakh packets of cigarettes are sold everyday in Assam,” Kataki added.

Dr Gautam Majumdar, medical superintendent, Regional Cancer Centre, Agartala, Tripura wrote that with the “look East” project of the government, cheap gutka packets are now easily available in the state and tobacco consumption has doubled recently.

Agreeing that the next best option to a ban is raising taxes on the products, the ministry official said, “If not a ban, then taxing tobacco products is seen as a best practice. Reports have shown that an increase in taxes reduces consumption but right now, only cigarettes come under the tax bracket and not locally produced smokeless forms of tobacco. These are still sold too cheap. Like few states, the centre could also take the step of imposing higher taxes on chewing tobacco.”

Related story

Plastic packaging of gutka-manufacturers, NGO's jump in fray

Refusing to lift the ban on sale of tobacco products like gutka and pan masala in plastic sachets, a bench of justices G S Singhvi and K S Radhakrishnan allowed all impleadment applications of various stakeholders, saying the court will hear all their concerns.

The Supreme Court today allowed several civil societies and manufacturers of non-smoking, chewing tobacco products including gutka to become a party to the hearing of a plea against their sale in plastic sachets.

Refusing to lift the ban on sale of tobacco products like gutka and pan masala in plastic sachets, a bench of justices G S Singhvi and K S Radhakrishnan allowed all impleadment applications of various stakeholders, saying the court will hear all their concerns.

The bench also directed solicitor general Gopal Subramaniam to file the government's reply to issues raised by the stakeholders within four weeks.

Gutka manufacturers and NGO's will have to subsequently file their replies to the government's submission in another four weeks.

The bench also directed the government to make available to concerned parties within two weeks the copies of the report dated February 17, 2011 on use of tobacco.

The court will start its hearing from July 20 and said there would be no adjournments in the case.

Earlier the government had notified the law banning plastic packaging of non-smoking tobacco products on February 4 after the bench had rebuked it on February 2 for not implementing the law and asked it to notify the same within two days.

Endorsing the Rajasthan High Court order, the bench had on December 7 last restrained gutka, pan masala and chewing tobacco manufacturers from using plastic as packaging material for their products from March 1 this year.

It had also ordered the government to entrust an independent agency with the task of testing the contents of these sachets to evaluate the risk they pose to consumers.









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