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October 7, 2019

Tobacco troubles

Editorial

 
October 7, 2019

The Sindh government has strengthened a preexisting ban on the use of gutka, a chewable concoction using tobacco and areca nut most commonly used by poorer segments of society since it is the cheapest form of addictive tobacco. The substance is said to be responsible for many cases of oral or throat cancer. The Sindh government has also again banned the use of sheesha, the Middle Eastern water-filtered tobacco pipe which uses flavours. This flavouring acts according to research conducted by the AKUH to give false impression that the use of the pipe is harmless, with many teenagers frequently using it at cafes everywhere in the country. This time, the Sindh government has imposed a possible jail sentence of one to six years for the use of gutka and a fine of up to Rs500,000. Sheesha is also banned, at least on paper, in Punjab.

But will these measures have any real impact? In the past, they have proved largely ineffective even though medical experts report on the enormous amount of damage being caused by both gutka and sheesha as its use grows. One sheesha, experts say, is equivalent to around 50 cigarettes. This cannot be healthy for anyone even if the pipe is shared around a table. The tobacco problem has gained renewed headlines around the world after US President Donald Trump banned Juuls, a brand of e-cigarette. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has reported at least 18 deaths, most of them young or relatively young people, as a consequence of using vapes. Vapes involve inhaling nicotine mixed with other additives and flavouring and have been marketed by the global tobacco industry as a safer option to conventional cigarettes. Though they do not contain tobacco, experts say it is the nicotine and additives which cause the swift damage we are seeing.

Since government bans are rarely implemented and have failed completely in the past, they are likely to fail again. We need to do much more to deal with our tobacco problem. Pakistan has one of the highest rates of cigarette smoking in the world as well as the use of tobacco in the form of hookah, gutka, niswar and so on. When mixed with areca nut, even more dangers are presented. Yes, warnings, some of them looking especially ominous, are printed on cigarette boxes, but these do little good. We must also review our policy as a whole and take into account the rapid switch that is occurring among the elite, including teenagers, to vapes. These are expensive but easily available while the strawberry, vanilla and other flavourings make inhaling more palatable. Countries like Canada have already refused to permit the sale of vapes as have some in Europe. We need to consider the consequences of their use among those who are no more than children. The trend is a dangerous one and we need to act before these deaths occur.