Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


India’s “gutka” ban will save millions but may anger more

Published Sep 06, 2012 11:57am


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

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.”


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

Comments (31) Closed

William Blakers Sep 06, 2012 10:47pm
Dr Dang Sep 06, 2012 01:08pm
Good Job India !!!
Hafiz Sep 09, 2012 12:11pm
Good one..
HINDU Sep 07, 2012 12:06pm
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 Sep 06, 2012 08:50pm
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 Sep 07, 2012 06:27am
Any prohibition comes at a price.
nimesh Sep 07, 2012 02:50am
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 Sep 09, 2012 03:09pm
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 Sep 08, 2012 10:20am
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 Sep 06, 2012 05:40pm
They does not cause Cancer!
yas Sep 07, 2012 02:03pm
What about Alcohol. the biggest killer in the world and the biggest disease. any comments...
Shirish Sep 07, 2012 05:14am
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 Sep 08, 2012 05:25am
"In no [o]ther country in the world I have seen this." You should come to Pakistan!
MJ Siddiqui Sep 06, 2012 05:16pm
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 Sep 06, 2012 01:34pm
JP Singh Sep 06, 2012 03:10pm
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 Sep 10, 2012 07:08am
cant not justify one but thing another
Shoaib Sep 10, 2012 07:18am
sorry i commit mistake by typing Can not justify one bad thing another
a Sep 07, 2012 04:11pm
I am ex gutka user. It is THE worst form of any addiction. Thank God, I was given strength to quit it.
Som Sep 07, 2012 06:45pm
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
Dave Sep 07, 2012 06:10pm
"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 Sep 07, 2012 05:49pm
Good one
Amir Sep 07, 2012 05:49pm
@Pratap "..This only happens in India..." You have not been to Pakistan yet my friend! It happens in the sub-continent.
Pratap Ahuja Sep 07, 2012 12:55am
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 Sep 07, 2012 04:33pm
Dr. saheb come up w/nuskha for healthy Gutka
KAS Sep 09, 2012 07:47am
Good point, ban both guts and alcohol!
Rao Sep 09, 2012 11:04am
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 Sep 07, 2012 04:13pm
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 Sep 08, 2012 05:05am
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 Sep 06, 2012 04:26pm
Govt needs to ban or increase the price of cigrattes also
Shu Sep 07, 2012 01:47pm
and i do not see chocolate being spat around like pan and gutka.