Everyone knows that smoking and chewing tobacco is bad for health, yet 250 million people in India — almost a fourth of the country’s population — consume some form of tobacco. “People think that they can give up tobacco use whenever they want, but it’s not that easy. Nicotine is a very addictive drug,” health minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss told the Hindustan Times.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) links smoking to 25 cancers — head and neck, urinary bladder, kidneys, uterine, cervix, pancreas, and colon, to name just a few. Smoking is also a major risk factor for several other diseases such as chronic bronchitis, heart disease, stroke, impotence and premature death.
“Most people link smoking to cancers, but it is the biggest cause of heart attacks in young people with no existing heart disease. Smoking increases raises the risk of clot formation in the blood, which can block arteries and cause a heart attack even in healthy people,” says Dr R. R. Kasliwal, director, cardiology, Escorts Heart Institute and Research Centre. “Lifestyle changes don’t help much if a person continues smoking,” he adds.
Smoking causes about 30 per cent of all cancer deaths (including 90 per cent of lung cancer deaths), 50 per cent of all heart disease deaths and at least 80 per cent of deaths from bronchitis and emphysema. According the Indian Council of Medical Research, one million people die of tobacco use in India every year. “Tobacco use kills one million people and is the cause of one million new cancer cases. Reducing tobacco use is naturally a big priority for the health ministry,” says Ramadoss.
Despite the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Packaging and Labelling) Rules banning smoking in public places and sale to minors in India, the number of smokers is going up each year. “About 10 million children under the age of 15 are addicted to tobacco in India,” says Ramadoss.
The WHO estimates that of every 1,000 tobacco users today, 500 will die of a tobacco-related disease, 250 of them in their middle age. Given the current tobacco consumption trends in India, tobacco-related deaths are expected to shoot up from 1.4 per cent of all deaths in 1990 to 13.3 per cent in 2020.
A proposal to carry graphic and direct health warnings — such as tobacco kills — on all tobacco packages from June 1 this year has been postponed indefinitely because of pressure from the bidi industry, which claims farmers and poor bidi workers will lose jobs. “No one will lose jobs, but thousands of lives ill be saved if the new warnings drive home the health hazards of tobacco use more effectively. The statutory warning currently carried on tobacco products is in English, a language the a majority of the population cannot read or understand,” says Ramadoss, who will start a campaign to make workplaces smoke-free this year to protect non-smokers from secondhand smoke.
Most people would stop using tobacco if they knew what goes into making a cigarette. It has formaldehyde, the chemical used to preserve animals in chemistry labs; cyanide found in rat poison; and nicotine, which is a powerful insecticide. Cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals, 50 of which cause cancer. “Studies have shown that bidis are even more harmful than cigarettes,” says Dr K. Srinath Reddy, president, Public Health Foundation of India.
“Tobacco is the second biggest cause of death in the world and kills 5 million people – one in 10 adult deaths — each year. If that is not reason enough to stop its use, I don’t know what is,” says Ramadoss.