While smoking or chewing pure tobacco has been known to us for centuries, ‘gutka’ is of a very recent origin. But it is an instant success for the manufacturers, that about fifteen years ago a manufacturer reportedly bought a Mercedes Benz costing about Rs. 4 crore for his daughter’s dowry.
Gutka is a form of chewing tobacco made of crushed betel nut, tobacco, slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and sweet or savory flavourings laced with thousands of chemicals. As it is highly addictive, very cheap and easily available or accessible, it is very popular with the young and old alike including many school children. Its excessive use can lead to loss of appetite, unusual sleep patterns, loss of concentration. Above all, it is carcinogenic and is considered the leading cause of cancer of the mouth, tongue, throat, larynx etc. besides others. Reportedly, India has about 80,000 new cases of oral cancer every year of which 80 percent are caused by gutka, pan masala, khaini and other tobacco products.
According to recent studies, the north eastern states like Meghalaya, Assam, Mizoram etc. have the highest incidence of cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx etc. (15-27 per lakh population). Ask anyone working in hospitals and nursing homes in Shillong, they will tell how the cancer cases have increased in recent years. It is painful to see friends and near and dear ones losing their tongue or dying from the disease after spending whatever they have, on their treatments.
Fully concerned about the harmful effects, 14 states have so far banned the manufacture, storage, sale and distribution etc. of gutka, khaini, pan masala containing tobacco etc. Goa ( in 2005) and Sikkim had imposed ban on the basis of their state laws. Since April 1, 2012, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Chhattishgarh, Jharkhand, Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, Gujarat and Mizoram have imposed ban under the provisions of the Food Safety and Standard (Prohibition and Restriction on Sales) Regulations, 2011, issued in August 2011 by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India .
The ban on gutka imposed by Maharashtra in 2002 and again in 2008 were overturned by the Supreme Court. But now, there are positive signs in that courts have shown reluctance to interfere with the ban orders. In the case of Kerala and Delhi, their respective High Court have declined to stay the ban.
While other states have thus shown their commitments to safeguard the safety of their people by banning gutka, our government is sleeping while cancer rages. While it gives undue importance to and was in the forefront in implementation of HSRP, removal of dark sun screen from vehicles etc. which are of little import or consequence so far as public health or welfare is concerned, it is indifferent to such a serious matter as protection of the people from the dreaded disease.
The question now is – when will the government wake up and impose ban on gutka, pan masala etc. to safeguard the health and lives of our people, the young generation in particular? If the government bans and implements it with the same enthusiasm with which it implements HSRP, removal of dark sun screen etc., I am sure it will succeed. It is better to be in the forefront in matters of importance rather than in matters of little public importance.
H.Chin Khenthang, IAS (Retd),
Shillong – 11.