Sixty-eight-year-old Navin Khanna, an oral cancer survivor who said has consumed gutka for almost six years until doctors detected cancer in his mouth, sits in front of a mirror at his home. – Photo by Reuters
Sixty-eight-year-old Navin Khanna, an oral cancer survivor who said has consumed gutka for almost six years until doctors detected cancer in his mouth, sits in front of a mirror at his home. – Photo by Reuters

NEW DELHI: Ten Indian states have banned a popular form of chewing tobacco in a major policy shift that may save millions of lives and strike a blow at the global tobacco industry, already reeling from new anti-smoking laws around the world.

But an estimated 65 million Indians use “gutka” – a heady form of chewing tobacco made of crushed betel nut, nicotine and laced with thousands of chemicals – and furious manufacturers are fighting to have the bans overturned.

Companies such as Delhi-based DS Group are dragging states to courts, complaining that the billion-dollar industry should be regulated as tobacco and not as food and that the bans threaten the livelihoods of millions of farmers and street vendors scattered from Bangalore to New Delhi.

“Nobody understands the bigger picture. What will happen to those poor farmers? No one thinks of them,” said a company official on condition of anonymity. No company Reuters consulted would speak on record.

Last week, Punjab became the tenth of 28 states to ban the sale of gutka after the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India reclassified it as a foodstuff, prohibiting the use of tobacco and nicotine as “ingredients in any food product”.

Gutka making is controlled by family-run Indian firms, with no international tobacco companies in the business. Several other forms of chewing tobacco considered less harmful have not been reclassified as foodstuffs and are not banned.

Some 482 million people live in the 10 states which have enforced the bans. Delhi, Gujarat and Chandigarh, with a combined population of 77 million, are due to follow suit – Delhi this week.

More Indians, including children, chew gutka then smoke, making the trend of outlawing the cheap, colourful packets a more effective health policy in the world’s second most populous nation than anti-smoking laws like Australia’s ban on cigarette pack logos.

“We’re using all kinds of means to persuade the rest (of the states) to enforce the ban. It’s a central legislation. States have no option but to abide now,” said Amal Pushp, director of the health ministry’s National Tobacco Control Programme.

Gutka is popular with the young and old alike, many of whom are blasé about the nation’s leading cause of oral cancer. Some of the chemicals in some brands of gutka are also used in tile cleaners and battery acids.

“Path to death”

“If I knew it would land me here, in this condition, I wouldn’t have laid my eyes on it,” said Abdul Kayum, 62, sitting on a hospital bed, his face bandaged after doctors cut out part of his jaw, gums and teeth to stop the cancer spreading.

“This is a path to death,” said Abdul, who sold his land in Bihar to pay for the $9,000 treatment.

Asia’s third-largest economy battles almost 80,000 new cases of oral cancer yearly. The treatment of tobacco-related diseases cost more than $5 billion in 2002-2003, according to the most recent data available cited in a health ministry and WHO report.

That compares to about $1.4 billion that the government earns in excise revenue from tobacco.

Tobacco has been chewed in India for centuries, dating back to the Mughal era when nawabs had “paan” – a betel leaf wrapped around a mixture of areca nut, pastes, spices and tobacco – to refresh their palates and aid digestion.

Gutka and paan masala are products of recent decades, available as dry, portable and readymade variants of the traditional paan, to cater for a fast-paced, modern life.

“Eating chocolate is an addiction, eating burgers is an addiction. They are also ‘food’. Will the government ban those too?” asked Sanjay Bechan, executive director of the Smokeless Tobacco Federation, adding that the gutka industry was already reporting losses.

“Are we being ruled by Hitler? This is supposed to be a democracy. People make their own choices – gutka or no gutka.”

The poor state of Madhya Pradesh was the first to ban the product, and Kerala, Bihar and eight others hopped on the bandwagon.

“We received several complaints from the police that schoolboys are taking these products and that hit me,” Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy told Reuters.

“We had to do this for the welfare of the state, no other reason.”

Maharashtra, Punjab and Kerala went a step further by banning all smokeless forms of tobacco, including “paan masala”, usually sold as a mouth freshener.

But it remains to be seen how well the bans are enforced. It will be an uphill battle to keep gutka away from children like 16-year-old Arun Bhati, who has been using it since ninth grade.

“If it gets banned here, I’ll still manage to get my fix,” said Arun confidently, tearing open a pouch of gutka with his teeth. “You can get it on the sly.”

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Comments are closed.

Comments (31)

William Blakers
September 6, 2012 10:47 pm
“Eating chocolate is an addiction, eating burgers is an addiction- They may be food and may be addictive but they dont have the same death rates as tobacco. All those farms growing tobacco around the world should be growing food to help feed the poor.
Dr Dang
September 6, 2012 1:08 pm
Good Job India !!!
Hafiz
September 9, 2012 12:11 pm
Good one..
HINDU
September 7, 2012 12:06 pm
but chocolate doesn't cause cancer.and also it is harmful only if you take in extreme extent, but gutka and other tobacco products are carcinogenic even take in small quantities.
shahid
September 6, 2012 8:50 pm
Put this condition in front of Gutka company (Death seller). The Gutka company must pay the fees of cancer treatment if gutka ban is lifted.
russianroullete2
September 7, 2012 6:27 am
Any prohibition comes at a price.
nimesh
September 7, 2012 2:50 am
The hearts of Gutka makers are bleeding for poor street vendors and farmers! : 'What will happen to them'? they ask Have you ever heard of anything more ridiculous?. These guys are willing to give people oral cancer, before allowing their revenue stream to be threatened.
zehra abidi
September 9, 2012 3:09 pm
government should take serious step to eradicated from the root level .... first of all they start the campaign for farmer to give other substitute for planting other fruit and also facilitate to them and this should be taught In school collage and universities level how harmful is this and they should make a video of those who are currently suffering from cancer due to its uses .... and then should be strictly monitor in the cities ,shops and stores it should not be sold at any cost this will work out
Murthy
September 8, 2012 10:20 am
Tobacco companies are shedding crocodile tears for the farmers. The govt is right, and has the right, to ban any substance that affects the health of people in general. Democracy does not mean allowing big companies to make money at the cost of people's health.
Sujjawal
September 6, 2012 5:40 pm
They does not cause Cancer!
yas
September 7, 2012 2:03 pm
What about Alcohol. the biggest killer in the world and the biggest disease. any comments...
Shirish
September 7, 2012 5:14 am
Banning a product is one thing and enforcing it is another. Gutkha is still available readily in my state which was first to ban it.
generalcuriosity
September 8, 2012 5:25 am
"In no [o]ther country in the world I have seen this." You should come to Pakistan!
MJ Siddiqui
September 6, 2012 5:16 pm
I bet the people who are so vehemently against the curbs on Gutka will not let their own kin eat it or get addicted to it.
Karachi Wala
September 6, 2012 1:34 pm
“Eating chocolate is an addiction, eating burgers is an addiction. They are also ‘food’. Will the government ban those too?” asked Sanjay Bechan, executive director of the Smokeless Tobacco Federation" Consuming too much chocolates and burgers may have side effects. Mr. Sanjay Bechan did not mention physical benefits associated with "Gutka".
JP Singh
September 6, 2012 3:10 pm
Gutka is easily available and accessable to all young and old. It is easy to pack with cheap packing machines and packing material freely available. First the Govt should ban the material used to pack gutka. I live in a state where Gutka is banned and its freely available on all pan shops all over the place. So whats the ban all about? Some of the smaller gutka making units that operate in limitied rural circles mix drugs in small quantity to the gutka pack. People become addicted to that unknown brand because of the drug content and it sells like hot cakes. Young kids in rural areas freely use gutka. They start as young as 12 to 13 years of age. Its a curse and should be banned all over the country.
Shoaib
September 10, 2012 7:08 am
cant not justify one but thing another
Shoaib
September 10, 2012 7:18 am
sorry i commit mistake by typing Can not justify one bad thing another
a
September 7, 2012 4:11 pm
I am ex gutka user. It is THE worst form of any addiction. Thank God, I was given strength to quit it.
Som
September 7, 2012 6:45 pm
There exists a subtle yet clear difference between physical addiction and psychological addiction. Tobacco, in all forms, is more addictive than alcohol or Ecstasy and does more harm than Ecstasy. It is also almost equally harmful as alcohol. So just the way we are not inclined to introduce poppy cultivation as lucrative occupation for the “poor”, we do not need to allow tobacco cultivation as well. And these words are coming from the keyboard of a smoker who regrets the first day he took a puff.
Dave
September 7, 2012 6:10 pm
"Nobody understands the bigger picture. What will happen to those poor farmers? No one thinks of them". Tell farmers to grow organic grains and fruit instead. That will help bring down inflation and will provide healthy food to millions.
nagesh
September 7, 2012 5:49 pm
Good one
Amir
September 7, 2012 5:49 pm
@Pratap "..This only happens in India..." You have not been to Pakistan yet my friend! It happens in the sub-continent.
Pratap Ahuja
September 7, 2012 12:55 am
We are the most uncivilized human beings on this beautiful planet earth. Go to any multistory building and you will see these spits all over the walls. Besides that you see Indians spitting on the roads and everywhere they fee like. In no ther country in the world I have seen this. It has made the beautiful country a spit hole. This only happens in India. It is about time to make these people, who chew tobacco, learn a civilized living. Pratap Ahuja
Qamar
September 7, 2012 4:33 pm
Dr. saheb come up w/nuskha for healthy Gutka
KAS
September 9, 2012 7:47 am
Good point, ban both guts and alcohol!
Rao
September 9, 2012 11:04 am
There may be lots of glamour with alcohol and it is as bad as any addictive substance. Alchoholism destroys individuals and also the family. So stay way from alcohol.
Qamar
September 7, 2012 4:13 pm
Good observation,take this opportunity and start a campaign by gutka co. as sponsorer to educate not just gutka peole but rest of the nation on cleaning up their act and be mindful of others feeling.. don't worry these people are in my country too. Just stay concern
yusuf khan
September 8, 2012 5:05 am
Somebody write about the popularity of gutka in Pakistan. Are people addicted the same way? How health people and health campaigners make aware common people about its ill effects ?
Vikas
September 6, 2012 4:26 pm
Govt needs to ban or increase the price of cigrattes also
Shu
September 7, 2012 1:47 pm
and i do not see chocolate being spat around like pan and gutka.
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