Thursday, June 20, 2024
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World No Tobacco Day 2024

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By Dr. Caleb Harris

We have witnessed a lot of action in the past few days, purportedly as a fight against drugs. While not everyone will agree with the action taken, none would disagree with the need to act against drugs. It was heartening to read about the plans of the government to bolster the Village Defence Parties to address the challenges posed by drug trafficking and abuse. And it is wonderful to note the concern shown by the pressure groups towards the drug menace. Drugs are a threat to society and need to be curbed by a multi-pronged approach.Studies have shown that use of tobacco by children may lead to drug use as they grow older. Hence tobacco is considered a ‘Gateway Drug’. This is very important in Meghalaya because, according to 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 many of these children are likely to take to the use of drugs. Apart from this, these children are at risk of cancers, respiratory and cardiac illnesses.
As a child, I have noticed that society played a role in curbing the use of addictive substances by children. The elders would scold children who smoked or chewed tobacco, betel nuts, etc, even if they were total strangers. But sadly, in Meghalaya, I have seen several kids using tobacco in public places, with the elders around them not concerned about this. This is probably because many of these ‘elders’ consume tobacco themselves too. 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 shop where I frequently purchase groceries and vegetables is run by a family with three school-going children. While the older children help in the shop, the youngest kid plays around the shop after school hours. Earlier, tobacco products were openly displayed and I have seen the children assist in selling these to customers. After explaining to them the provisions of the COTPA(Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act), they no longer display tobacco products openly, but the sale continues. As per COTPA, smoking in public places, selling tobacco products to or by minors, or selling tobacco products within a radius of 100 metres from any educational institution is illegal. Establishments where tobacco products are sold must display messages like “Tobacco Causes Cancer” and “Sale of tobacco products to a person under the age of eighteen years is a punishable offence under law”. These children, who are exposed to these products at a young age may feel that it is normal for people to use tobacco and in future may go on to use drugs too. I am sure many of us would have seen minors selling tobacco and if we explain the consequences, some of them may change for the better.
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. 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. But such an initiative of the government would be fruitless without the support of the society.
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 “Protecting children from tobacco industry interference,” and aims to give a platform to young people across the world, who are calling for the tobacco industry to stop targeting them with products that are harmful to their health. The tobacco industry targets the young children because they will continue to use tobacco for several years, and since many of these tobacco users live truncated lives, the industry needs younger people to join the user pool. Youngsters across the world are appealing to their governments to adopt policies which would protect them from the schemes of the tobacco industry. The Meghalaya government has adopted the theme, ‘My Meghalaya, Tobacco-free Meghalaya’, which has been propagated widely by the school children.
Society needs to take responsibility for curbing the use of tobacco, as this will have multiple benefits. Apart from impacting the incidence of cancers, which is higher than the rest of the country, it would lead to much lesser respiratory and heart diseases too. This would improve the economy of the state as illnesses may lead to poverty. Since this can impact the state in several ways, the pressure groups should take upon themselves the task of educating people on COTPA, thereby reducing the usage of tobacco and this in turn may impact the drug use too.
(Dr Caleb Harris, MCh is Surgical Oncologist at NEIGRIHMS: Email: [email protected] Views expressed are personal)

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