World No Tobacco Day 2023


By Dr. Caleb Harris

William Wordsworth, in his famous poem penned in 1802, “My Heart leaps up (The Rainbow)”, used the phrase, ‘The Child is Father of the Man’. While he hoped to retain his childhood joys forever, this could also mean that traits, be it positive or negative, which children acquire, will remain with them through adulthood.

It is delightful to observe, across Meghalaya, be it in a small roadside eatery, or a swanky restaurant, young and old alike pause to say grace before their meal. This is probably because this is ingrained from their childhood. Hence it is sad to know that as per the Global Youth Tobacco Survey 2019, 34% of 13 to15 year-olds in Meghalaya were found to be using tobacco.This is a survey done among children aged 13 to 15 years of age, commissioned by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India(GoI) and found that across India, the corresponding rate was 8%. Sad, because these children are likely to continue using tobacco throughout their short life, truncated by cancer, respiratory and cardiac illnesses.

Meghalaya has the dubious distinction of topping the country in the proportion of cancers caused by tobacco, with 70.4% of cancers in men and 46.5% of cancers in women of East Khasi Hills District attributable to tobacco.

Meghalaya tops the country in the incidence of oesophageal cancer(cancer of the food pipe) with ten times the incidence seen in other states. This is also one of the cancers attributed to tobacco. Meghalaya also has among the highest incidences of cancer in the country (131 per lakh population).

The Government of Meghalaya, through a joint effort by the departments of health and education, has successfully implemented the ‘Tobacco Free Educational Institution’(ToFEI) program to curb use of Tobacco by school students. As part of this program, the school is expected to ensure that no tobacco product is sold in and around schools (upto a radius of 100 metres), no teachers (or other staff) use tobacco in the school and activities such as pledge against tobacco are taken up on a regular basis by the students.

This month the students have participated in rallies to spread awareness about the ill effects of tobacco around the state and have conducted a signature campaign to this effect too. Meghalaya State Tobacco Control Cell (STCC) has been awarded the World No Tobacco Day Award 2023 for the South East Asia Region for its work on tobacco control by the World Health Association(WHA) for this program. But such an initiative of the government would be fruitless if the same students go home to see their parents use tobacco.

World No Tobacco Day has been observed on the 31st of May every year, since 1987. An initiative of the World Health Organisation (WHO), this year, the theme is ‘Grow food, not tobacco’. The focus is on the lies of the tobacco industry, which claims that if people stop using tobacco, the livelihoods of farmers who grow tobacco will be destroyed. This is far from the truth as there are several other alternative crops which these farmers can cultivate and reap better profits. The Meghalaya government has adopted the theme, ‘My Meghalaya, Tobacco-free Meghalaya’, which has been propagated widely by the school children.

Recently, during a meeting held to deliberate on the strategies for tobacco control, one of the speakers shared his observation. While he was in a marketplace, there were school children going around collecting signatures from adults, which was essentially a pledge against tobacco. He was shocked, he said, to see a gentleman sign one of these pledges while still smoking a cigarette. Not surprisingly, 47% of adults in Meghalaya use tobacco, as compared to the national average of 28.6% according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS 2016-17).

The citizens of Meghalaya need to introspect on this. As adults, we are expected to be role models for children. We need to tell them what is right and wrong, but unfortunately, the reverse is happening. The children are exhorting the adults to shun tobacco, which has no beneficial effect to humanity (apart from the profit it brings to those who trade it), while it should have been the other way around. Are the children fathering us on this?

(The writer is M.Ch.(Surgical Oncology) and can be reached at [email protected]) (Views expressed are personal)