All good things don’t come in small packages. Just ask Rohan, who had been consuming gutka since he was five years old. Now 17, Rohan had to have his upper jaw removed when he was detected with mouth cancer in the final stage and despite that he only has a 50 percent chance of making it to his 22nd birthday.
Gutka, sold in pocket size packages that costs upto Rs 4 per pouch, is one of the deadliest poisons in the country.
After two failed attempts in the past, the Maharashtra government has followed in the footsteps of states like Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Bihar have banned the production and sale of gutka and paan masala in the state.
Is a ban the answer?
Many states have tried to curb tobacco sales by levying heavy taxes or have laid a complete ban on the usage. After Maharashtra’s ban, Himachal Pradesh also implemented the ban last Friday. Dr PC Gupta, Director of anti-tobacco advocacy group Healis Institute for Public Health, said he wants the entire country to ban gutka, so that there’s no way the packets can be smuggled in from other states.
“Now that the ban has been implemented in several states, we know there are no legal complications anymore. All the states can ban gutka now. The centre must act and we hope India will soon be tobacco-free,” says Gupta.
However, the institutes that have helped declare the ban say that implementing it is going to be a difficult affair, although they are set to make it happen this time. The gutka sellers in Maharashtra have been given 20 days time to clear their stock, before the ban is fully implemented.
Why don’t all states ban gutka?
The ban on gutka and paan masala will result in loss of revenue of around Rs100 crore per year for the Maharashtra exchequer. Not surprisingly, not all states are ready to lose so much money. Rajashtan has been mulling banning gutka since 2007, West Bengal too has held several meetings with chief minister Mamata Banerjee on the subject but were unable to come to any conclusion.
The current ban in Mahrashtra may lead to gutka and related products being made available through the black market from neighbouring states. But experts say that despite this they expect to see it have a major impact on the products being consumed by minors.
“We are not shunning the possibility of all black market, those addicted may buy it at a higher price. Nevertheless, it will ensure that children do not have free access to it,” says Gupta.
How effective will the ban be?
“The last two times we faced the hurdle of legal complications. But this time we will win,” Gupta said. The ban is a result of several health organisations and NGOs, including Gupta’s that have been pressurising the state to take harsh steps against gutka.
The first time, in 2002, when the state had decided on the ban, the decision could not pass legal scrutiny. Five years later, in 2007, the state attempted to ban gutka again, but was thwarted by the stay orders from courts when the manufacturers appealed against it.
But, this time the ban will be enforced under Section 30 (2) (A) read with regulation 2, 3 and 4 punishable under Section 58 of the Food Safety and Standards Act. Dr Gupta explains that under this act no harmful substances can be added to food items.
“Earlier the court had declared gutka as food, and now that we have proved that gutka contains nicotine, which is a harmful substance, they had to ban it,” he said.
Why does the ban matter?
Prepared from the crushed betel nut, tobacco and sweet or savoury flavourings, gutka can catch the fancy of almost anyone. But, while tobacco-related diseases affected only older people between 60 -70 years of age, now it’s even the kids. Dr Gupta gives an example of how a 2-year-old in Nagpur was severely affected due to tobacco as his grandfather would feed him some of his gutka.
“When a pack of gutka is kept just beside the chocolates, how can it not tempt the children?” asked Devika Chadha, Program director, Salaam Bombay. Working closely with the law ministry and food minister’s office, Salaam Bombay, an NGO, has been trying to make Maharashtra free of tobacco, especially for children.
Chadha said, “Most gutka manufacturers market the product to children by referring to it as a candy or mouth freshener. When these children see their parents, friends and everyone around them chewing it, they think it’s a very cool thing to do.”
Often by the time they realize that it is harmful, it is too late. “We have seen a six-year-old kid affected with mouth cancer. He started consuming gutka when he was three,” she says.
And is the habit restricted to children from lower economic backgrounds? “Absolutely not,” said Chadha.
“You will see many children, from all class, section, society just buying a pack of paan masala, like they buy chocolates,” she said, adding that shopkeepers too, sometimes, will give you a pack of gutka/ paan masala when they don’t have change.
“This is wrong. How can you give these kids poison? We have to stop this,” she said.
How does gutka affect consumers?
“This mild stimulant can cause cancer of lungs, lips, tongue, oral cavity, throat and larynx, uterus and urinary bladder and several other tobacco-related diseases,” says Dr Gupta.
Besides mouth cancer, tobacco can cause severe impairment of the oral and dental health. Tobacco is also associated with hypertension and Ischemic heart disease and with increased risk of stroke. It adversely affects reproductive health in women and also seriously affects the fetus.