No smoking for Indian youth but here is why that’s not good news
Indians are increasingly hitting the bottle at a young age or shooting narcotics up their nostrils and blood vessels, replacing the puffs of cigarette smoke that gave them a high about a decade ago.
Nationwide data from the Global Adult Tobacco Survey-2 shows young Indians moving away from tobacco since 2009-2010.
Tobacco abuse among teenagers and young adults has dropped by a third among people aged 15 to 24 and halved in the age group of 15 to 17 years, according to the survey.
But the number of people abusing alcohol and drug is increasing, with children as young as 12 seeking a liquor or heroin fix, say experts.
According to the UN, India has 10 million of the world’s estimated 247 million drug abusers. There is no latest national-level data to bring out the magnitude of the problem, but doctors are registering a considerable rise in number of drug abusers.
“In clinical practice, there has been over a five-fold increase in adolescents coming for problems related to substance use in under a decade,” said
Dr Samir Parikh, the director of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis hospitals.
According to New Delhi-based de-addiction expert Keshav Palita, five to 10 new adolescent patients crop up each day and “more than half of them
were introduced to drug” when they’re below 15. “Cannabis, alcohol, cocaine, mephedrone and other pharmaceutical and party drugs are the most common among children,” he said during a session on “de-glamourisation of drugs in society” last year.
Besides, easy access to substances such as whiteners, nail polish removers, paint thinners, petrol, and shoe polish are quick and cheap fixes for children — inhaled to get an instant high.
These are not banned items and children sniffing glue and petroleum fumes seldom realise how harmful these things are to their health.
“There is a risk of a child starting with inhalants and later moving to harder forms such as injectable drugs that can have much serious implication on their health,” said Dr Nimesh G Desai, the director of the Delhi government-run Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences.
From smoking a ganja joint and sniffing a handkerchief dunked in petrol to popping a psychedelic pill, children learn the fixes from peer groups and pass on the knowledge to vulnerable kids.
“Exposure to various views on the internet has only increased the tendency to experiment, as a lot of literature, especially around cannabis, creates ambiguity around the harms of the substance which unfortunately leads to more experimentation,” Parikh said.
The Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights found during a study in 2015 that the mean age of street children abusing drug was about 13 years in the national capital. There were reports of kids below 10 taking drug and the age of initiation could be as low as five.
The social justice ministry last year assigned a fresh national-level survey on the extent and pattern of drug use to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi.
“Quality data on the extent of substance abuse among the youth is lacking, at present,” said Dr Rajesh Sagar, a professor of psychiatry at AIIMS.
One of the national surveys that experts rely on was published in 2004 by the Union ministry of social justice and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). It showed about 20% of the drug addicts in India were below 21 years.
The survey, on the trends and pattern of drug abuse in India, was conducted on a sample size of 40,697 abusers between 12 and 60 years. It found 21% were consuming alcohol every month and more than 0.7% took an opioid a month.
Alcohol and drug often lead to suicide. Data released by the National Crime Records Bureau show a jump of more than 100% in cases of suicides linked to substance abuse in 20 years. But these numbers don’t tell the full story as many deaths go unreported.
The scourge of drug abuse, especially the high prevalence in Punjab, has found resonance in politics and Bollywood alike.
In 2016, a row erupted over Udta Punjab, a movie that allegedly defamed the state’s people by wrongly depicting 70% of them consume drugs. The controversy pitch-forked the state’s drug problem back into focus before this year’s assembly elections.
The drug issue dominated the campaign much like in 2012 when the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) declared a war on drugs. Five years on, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Congress promised to weed out the menace.
Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress took an oath on the Sikh holy book that he will finish the problem in four weeks. As chief minister, after his party won the polls, he launched a crackdown on peddlers.
From March to August, more than 7,000 people were arrested and around 98 kilos of heroin, 53kg of charas, 289kg of opium and 20,340kg of poppy husk were seized along with other drugs.
An alleged nexus between drug peddlers and police has been busted after the government formed a special task force to deal solely with crimes linked to narcotics.
The crackdown is having some effect, though. It has reduced supply, thereby making drug huge expensive and out-of-reach than before. A gram of heroin, which was sold for ₹2,000 in Punjab, now costs ₹5,000. In Jalandhar’s drug de-addiction centre, the number of people seeking rehab increased from 1,600 in March to 2,300 in May. It treats less than 800 now.
Curbing supply is part of the solution as drug abuse is a psycho-socio-medical problem.
“It is important to intervene at the school level. Also, at any given time not more than 2,000 addicts will be getting treated. We are churning out more addicts than our rehabs can handle,” Palita said.
The government runs a 24X7 national toll-free helpline, 1800-11-0031, for people willing to quit. “We receive around 20 calls a day that last 20 minutes to an hour. We counsel families as well. We refer them to de-addiction centres,” said Khushi, a counselor.