DRIVING along the roads of Karachi, one cannot miss the role of the city walls in promoting dubious products and services. But alongside all the graffiti, the unsightly red stains of peek produced after chewing on paan (betel) totally ruins the already depleting surroundings.

To our elders, it was a leisurely activity to munch on paan after each meal, which was claimed to stimulate digestion. Our grandmothers had elaborate paandaans where all paraphernalia that went into its making was kept. The children had their own reasons to be attracted to it as it was an alternative place where spare cash was hidden.

But now this chewing habit has taken over a larger segment of the population and it appears that much more lethal ingredients are going into the paan mix. Shops everywhere are well-stocked with all sorts of paan, chhalia (areca nuts), and the even more toxic concoction known as gutka and their sale goes on unabated. Even in impoverished areas they are easily available and being cheaply priced manages to bring in buyers from all age groups.

Experts point out that cases of oral cancer in the country are on the rise and the frequent consumption of chhalia and gutka is the main cause. It has been clinically established that most of the locally consumed areca nuts are largely of low quality and are often found with fungal infections. They contain artificial (textile) colour, artificial sugar, addictive substances, chemicals and even animal blood.

Prolonged consumption of such compounds has been known to cause cancer, possibly leading to death. Up to 75 per cent of oral cancer patients getting treatment in city hospitals have been known to use chhalia and gutka. About seven per cent of them have been children.

The hazards of this slow poisoning of the population need to be taken seriously at all levels. But the authorities have failed to take meaningful actions to limit the production and import of these harmful products. Occasionally, it is reported that consignments of such products are confiscated, but these news stories are few and far between. And it is rare that any culprit is taken to task for importing or manufacturing such stuff, otherwise it can act as the biggest deterrent.

A two-pronged approach is essential where the media tries to create awareness about the hazards of consuming chhalia and gutka, while the local administration must use all its resources to clamp down on factories where this slow poison is being produced.

Parents can also play a vital role in making children realise the diseases that paan, gutka and chhalia could cause, thereby bringing about a change in behaviour. It’s not just a question of limiting its accessibility: only a formal ban (backed by strict enforcement) on the import, manufacture and sale of such toxic stuff appears to be the only option.—Samina Farooqi Ahmed

Opinion

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