Addicted to big trouble

Addicted to big trouble

Nicotine trouble

Even as we observe World No Tobacco Day every year with a new resolve, smoking is increasingly made taboo in public places and cigarette packets are plastered with pictures of oral cancer and nicotine-full lungs, a dangerous trend is emerging in smoking.

Doctors say that the age of initiation into smoking is reducing by the day. Earlier, the youngest smoking addicts they would get would be age 18 or 19. In the past few years,  this age limit has come down to as low as 12 and 13. While most of them are caught by parents in the act, some are themselves realising that it is a problem and seeking medical help; but the question is why are children so young taking to smoking and how does one arrest this fatal trend?

Dr. Rohit Garg, MD, neuro-psychiatry at a prominent smoking de-addiction centre in Greater Kailash, South Delhi, says, “Till sometime back, I would get patients with chronic smoking problems above the age 25 only. They would realise that their smoking habit is affecting their work, mental health and family life and approach us. Nowadays, I get at least five patients in a month, mostly boys, who are below 20 and are brought in by the ear by their parents. Sometimes, they are also convinced to seek medical opinion and come in accompanied by their girlfriends.

“Most of these boys belong to well-to-do families and are from prestigious schools. In fact, that is where smoking begins. They see people in the family smoking or friends in school and pick it up. However, most are unaware of the fact that smoking is five times more addictive than heroin.

So, to start smoking for fun is easy but to get rid of it is much more difficult than it is to quit heroin. Once they start to run out of pocket money sooner than often, display poor academic performance, develop behavioural problems like lying and hiding stuff and eventually psychosis - a state of perpetual nervousness and confusion, parents take notice and discover it.”

Dr. HM Malhotra, a psychiatrist with another smoking rehabilitation centre in Lajpat Nagar adds, “Smoking does not stay restricted to cigarettes alone but forces one to start on other substances as well. There are certain cells in our brain called the ‘reward circuits.’ Whenever one smokes, these cells are ‘rewarded.’ However, they are never satisfied. The more you smoke, the more ‘reward’ they seek. So very often, when these young smokers, run out of money they combine cheap gutkha with cigarettes to heighten the effect.”

He adds, “Another stark truth of our country is that youngsters in the upper strata of society are more aware of the concept of de-addiction and approach us for help, but those in rural areas or from poor families don’t even realize that it is a problem. They see their grandfathers and even grandmothers smoking hookah and chewing tobacco and take to it like a family tradition. It is very sad indeed that till the last stage of a tobacco-induced disease like oral cancer they can’t think of nicotine as the cause of illness.”    

In urban areas, however, the need for children to smoke arises more out of already existing mental health problems than tradition. Ranvir Singh, a counsellor at a de-addiction centre in Munirka says, “The trigger is almost always anger, anxiety, stress, depression and little attention from parents. For the same reason when a parent approaches us with a smoking addict kid, we tell them that medicines and therapy will be provided, but what he or she ultimately needs is mental support and love. Steer the child away from cigarettes and take him or her towards a healthy and reassuring environment.”

“When the child is still at school level, it is easier to control his or her smoking habit. If it continues thereafter, quitting becomes very difficult. So steps should be taken while there is still some time in hand. Thereafter the child may be lost to smoking.”

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