Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Health Enemy Numero Uno

Health Enemy Numero Uno
Published in Deccan Herald
Benita Sen
Tobacco has been smoked or chewed for thousands of years. And yet, the knowledge of the huge health dangers from this plant is rather recent, laments Benita Sen

As an amateur gardener, one is often looking for ‘green’ or organic ways to keep the garden pest-free. Perhaps the most lasting home remedies for pests is tobacco water. Most stubborn invaders balk at the treatment.That is one indication of the damage tobacco can wreak. Little wonder, then, that two philanthropists got together to fight the use of tobacco across the world. On 23 July 2008, Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates pledged $500 million “to help governments in developing countries” reduce the use of tobacco.New knowledgeAs Bill Gates pointed out about his involvement with the scheme, “Tobacco-caused diseases have emerged as one of the greatest health challenges facing developing countries.”To many of us, the operative words there are “have emerged.” This knowledge is barely a couple of generations young. Tobacco has been smoked or chewed for thousands of years. And yet, the knowledge of the huge health dangers from this plant is rather recent. Millions of people in ours and several other countries, in the 40+ bracket, took for granted the notion, perpetrated by films, advertisements and other media, that smoking is hip and happening.If you grew up goggle-eyed as Clark Gable sauntered across the scene, the cigar was not far from your consciousness. If you tramped to movie halls to catch Hindi films, you imitated icons like Dev Anand and hummed his Hum Dono song, har fikar ko dhoonye mein udata chala gaya as a yardstick of nonchalance.The more bindaas would opt for a beedi. Our generation may not have imagined we’d live to see a film titled No Smoking. We did not know that tobacco could be that harmful. Not till we were adults. Not because science hadn’t caught on, but because the news had not been disseminated as much as it has been in the next few decades.Long historyThe realisation of what imbibing tobacco can do, is almost a century old. In 1911, Dr Isaac Adler (1849 – 1918) raised the first suspicion that tobacco was linked to lung cancer.That inkling may be as pathbreaking as Dr Ronald Ross’ 1897 comprehension of a link between mosquitoes and malaria. August 20, the day of Ross’ realisation, is earmarked as World Mosquito Day. May 31 is earmarked as World No Tobacco Day but given the dimensions of the problem, perhaps tobacco could have more days earmarked to drawing attention to its dangers.Just three years after Adler, a concerned Thomas Alva Edison wrote to Henry Ford expressing his fear that cigarettes are dangerous to brain cells, although he noted that the danger "comes principally from the burning paper wrapper” which produces acrolein, a toxic, instable aldehyde that is a known lung irritant and a suspected carcinogen in humans. “Unlike most narcotics,” warned Edison, who did not employ smokers, “this degeneration (of brain cells) is permanent and uncontrollable.”One of the most convincing findings came in the middle of the last century. In 1950 Dr Morton Levin of the Department of Epidemiology noted in a study what many before him had suspected: tobacco was linked to lung cancer.Newer findingsBut now that tobacco is recognized as a health enemy, it is crawling camouflaged into products you and I may not suspect as dangers. Prabha Chandra and Uzma Mulla of NIMHANS pointed out in their 2007 report, ‘Areca Nut: The hidden Indian ‘gateway’ to future tobacco use and oral cancers among youth’ (Indian Journal of Medical Sciences vol 61 issue 6), Indian youth are faced with a new enemy their parents were not up against: camouflaged deadlies like areca nut and tobacco in most brands of pan masala.What is alarming is that the perceived respectability of pan masala makes it a deadly gender equalizer: although fewer Indian women smoke, both men and women consume pan masala with equal fervour. The gender inequity does not stop there. According to the Bloomberg Foundation, “On average, male beedi smokers lose about 6 years of life, (while) female beedi smokers lose about 8 years of life.”The buck stops hereDoes all this knowledge mean we are better armed to fight the deadly leaf? Yes and no. Studies have found that most developed countries reported a fall in the sale of cigarettes among those with more education. Logical, since self-preservation runs strong in all forms of life.But that’s where the truism ends for us. This is the opposite in India. Even the World Bank notes in Economics of Tobacco in India, “As the education increases, (people) in urban and rural households with a higher education smoke more cigarettes compared to lower educated households.”The answer to this perplexing trend could lie in the newly-found purchasing power that makes one throw caution to the winds. Perhaps these consumers could be reminded of the findings shared by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, “Tobacco use is deadly.” In any form. Whether as cigarettes, beedis, gutkha or even the innocuous pan masala. Period. We cannot afford to lose 2,200 Indians every day because of a tobacco-related disease.

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