Gutka taking on other forms

According to WHO, nearly 30 per cent of Indians chew this form of the camouflaged killer.

It can lead to irregular heart beats, elevated pulse rate and high blood pressure. It has been known to alter blood sugar levels abruptly. It’s toxic effects make it unsafe for pregnant women. It is positively harmful for children.

It damages the liver, kidneys and the gastro intestinal tract. It is a leading cause of tuberculosis. In the elderly, it can trigger heart attacks and strokes. Among all ages, it spells the death knell for its users. But, worst of all, it is the culprit for that ‘emperor of  maladies’ – cancer, in all its devilish forms ranging from the tongue to throat to lungs. It is called gutka, an innocent looking package of arecanut, laced with sugar, spices, perfume and of course, pieces of crushed tobacco. According to WHO, nearly 30 per cent of Indians, including children, chew this form of the camouflaged killer.

A shocking revelation that prompted the Supreme Court to issue a directive to the Centre to ban the production, distribution and sale of this poisonous substance under the Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA). Last month, Karnataka was one of the last states in the country to make the manufacture and sale of gutka illegal. As expected, this stirred a hornet’s nest with agriculturists who cultivate areca/betel nut farms claiming that their livelihood was hit by an uncaring government. The agitation has now assumed political dimensions. Even a former chief minister of Karnataka seized the oportunity to promote himself as a champion of the aggrieved farmer/distributor by accusing the state government of taking a hasty decision without consulting “all the stakeholders.” The culprit in gutka is the nicotine, not the betel nut. The ban, therefore, hardly affects areca nut farmers.

Creative solutions

When the Centre banned cigarette smoking in public places, there were cries of revolt from the ‘stakeholders’ then also. Business interests and peoples’ interests can never be the same. It needs a caring government to protect the latter without injuring the former through creative solutions like encouraging alternate agricultural practices in those farms where tobacco is grown. Or, assisting the manufacture of other marketable products in those factories where cigarettes are made. The tobacco lobby is a very powerful lobby, not only in India, but in other countries too. In America, the industry has fought tooth and nail to prove that banning tobacco will hurt, not just the farmers, but the country’s economy itself!

They projected a gloomy picture of the state supporting millions of homeless persons with free health care, free food and free living quarters when prople no longer smoked cigarettes. Why ban something that has proved a livelihood to farmers who grow the weed; distributors who circulate it; business houses which manufacture the cigarette; retailers who sell it.
Tobacco supporters in India are not far behind. They too have argued to prove the number of persons who will lose jobs,  the number of families that will be reduced to dire poverty following unemployment on a large scale if smoking is prohibited. They have visualised a grim picture of poverty and distress for the arecanut farmers and workers in gutka factories. 

Fortunately, economists have proved all these simplistic arguments  false and misleading. The truth is, according to them, when people do not buy tobacco related products, they will actually benefit farmers and business houses because they will now have the money to buy better education/health facilities for their children; more useful products including medicines and wholesome food items which will again bring in a livelihood for farmers, distributors, processing/packing factories and retailers.

Not that banning these products has ever stopped people from using them. Just as prohibition spawned illicit liquor in the country, banning gutka may spur the growth of alternate sources of tobacco. We already have news of unscrupulous traders selling paan masala and gutka separately instead of mixing them up in order to dodge the FSSA. Nicotine addicts do not mind in what shape or colour it appears as long as they get a ‘high’ by inhaling its smoke, or sniffing its odour or simply chewing it in the deadly cocktail of paan, masala and perfume. The last is the preferred choice for young women and children since they can imbibe the nicotine surreptitiously in a concealed formula without inviting attention.

Even as I write this, I see the bloated and distorted face of a 17-year-old girl in a cancer hospice in the city.  She was from Doddaballapur, belonging to a family of migrant labourers. She was brought in an advanced stage of oral cancer to die here. The rest of the story is unnecessary. She is just one of the thousands of young victims in this state who succumbed to the perils of gutka. Do we still need political debates on this subject?

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