With the Union Health Ministry categorising pan masala and gutka as banned food products because they contain tobacco, there is fresh hope among cancer specialists and public health officials that incidence of cancer caused by these items will come down.
Almost a year ago, the city witnessed an intensive drive by public health department officials against these items that were categorised till then as tobacco products.
But, the sale of these items continued as the number of food inspectors in the health department of the local body was inadequate for the task of covering the entire city.
“The drive should have been effective even while treating pan masala and gutka as mere tobacco products. The word tobacco itself is enough to warn of risk to health and warrant a ban on production,” says Director of Sri Ramakrishna Institute of Oncology and Research P. Guhan.
“If the Government's approach will continue to be what it has been so far, the categorisation as a food product will not make the ban effective. What needs to be done is to ban production and not just sale,” he says.
Dr. Guhan, however, feels that if the spirit of the fresh approach is a total ban and will be matched by action on the ground, there is hope of weeding out the menace of cancer caused by chewing tobacco.
The Food Safety and Standards Act seeks to brand pan masala and gutka as unsafe food because they contain tobacco. The Act will serve its purpose only if there is ban on production of an unsafe item.
As for a ban only on sale, Dr. Guhan says the experience so far show that shopkeepers find many ingenious ways to sell these products. “What causes pain is that young boys take to this habit and end up with oral cancer at a productive age,” he laments.
Though efforts are taken by cancer hospitals to create awareness among the people on the risks, there is not enough will on their part to shun these products. “It is shocking that sachets of pan masala items are offered along with betel leaves after lunch at weddings,” he says.
In addition to the risk of oral cancer, pan chewing is a nuisance, he points out. If chewing is a major public health problem, spitting the juice in public places should also be treated as one.
A health department official in the Coimbatore Corporation says both these problems will be rooted out if the production itself is banned.
Director of Comprehensive Cancer Centre at Kovai Medical Center and Hospital V. Kannan says that in addition to the latest move by the Government, a law banning spitting of tobacco juice in public places must be in force, just as the one that prohibits smoking in public places.
“The harm done by use of tobacco and its products should be probably added to school textbooks,” he suggests.
Health qualification degree holders (doctors, nurses, pharmacists, etc.,) get educated at a greatly subsidised tuition fee by the government for their graduate and post graduate studies.
There should be a yearly progress report from each doctor on the service they have done to society in eradicate tobacco use.