GUWAHATI, April 18 – The continuing sale of gutkha in Assam, disregarding public health interests, has prompted the Voluntary Health Association of Assam (VHAA) to express serious concern. Referring to the recent ban on gutkha production and sale in Madhya Pradesh and in Goa much earlier, the VHAA has questioned why such a step cannot be taken by the Assam Government.
Assam has one of the highest incidences of oral cancer in the country and a main factor has been identified as the widespread use of tobacco products such as gutkha and other chewable tobacco products.
The VHAA said that to safeguard the health of its citizens from the menace of chewing tobacco products, the Government of Madhya Pradesh has banned the sale and manufacture of products like gutkha, khaini and other chewing tobacco products based on the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) regulation to prohibit the addition of tobacco or nicotine in food, which was issued on August 1, 2011.
With this, Madhya Pradesh has become the first State to use the FSSAI regulation to ban the sale and manufacture of products like gutkha. The only other Indian State that has banned gutkha is Goa but it has done so on the basis of a State public health law.
“By banning gutkha, the Madhya Pradesh Government has demonstrated tremendous commitment towards safeguarding the health of people and protecting the masses, especially the youth from the growing menace of tobacco addiction. The Government of Assam too should implement the FSSAI law in the larger interest of the younger generation in the State who is falling prey to this menace and facing premature death”, said Ruchira Neog, executive secretary, Voluntary Health Association of Assam (VHAA).
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), a statutory body under the Health Ministry to handle food-related issues, notified new regulations. It states under Rule 2.3.4, “Tobacco and nicotine shall not be used as ingredients in any food products”.
In Assam 39.3 per cent of adults (52.6 per cent of males and 25.3 per cent of females) currently consume some form of tobacco. Among adults 39.8 per cent of males and 25.3 per cent of females consume smokeless tobacco like gutkha, khaini, zarda and other chewing tobacco products.
Alarmingly,, the number of young tobacco consumers is also high. The average age at initiation of tobacco use in Assam is 19 years in adults.
India has the highest prevalence of oral cancer globally, with 75,000 to 80,000 new cases of oral cancers in a year. Gutkha sold in small pouches across the country has become a serious health hazard. Easy availability and low prices make it popular among youth and women. Gutkha use is becoming an alternative choice in India as the culture and traditions here do not give children and women the social sanction to smoke cigarettes.
The Government of India has been pushed to act on this issue by the civil society that has been pressing for a ban on smokeless tobacco products. The directors of 16 regional cancer centres in India individually wrote letters to the Prime Minister in April, 2011 and highlighted the issue of the rising number of cancers in the head and neck region in the States they serve due to smokeless tobacco consumption. Among those was the Dr B Borooah Cancer Institute, Guwahati.
The situation in Assam is a cause of concern because the State Health Department has shown no interest to stop the hazard of gutkha consumption. Thirteen Chief Ministers including the Chief Minister of Assam had pledged their support to curb this growing menace in their States and so have various Members of Parliament and political leaders in various Central and State ministers.