The Deadly Pouch that Kills

She wafts across the screen in bright pink, tossing a handful of what looks like white crystals that promise to make you fresh and attractive. It’s an advertisement for Vimal Paan Masala, just one in a recent flood of such ads that are flooding our TV screens these days.

The images, a world apart from what we grew up watching – of avuncular, jolly “uncle-ji’s” passing around a pouch after a wedding. Those ads were not ‘cool’; the products were clearly targeted for a certain kind of audience. That strategy has changed with paan masala companies now going after a younger audience, even women and teenagers.

Watch out say anti-tobacco activists because the products that are being marketed under paan masala are actually a clever disguise for gutkha, a banned product. Gutkha, for the uninitiated, is a powdery, light-colored substance, typically taken after meals. It imparts a buzz as soon as one takes it. “What is advertised as Chaini Chaini on TV screens is later sold as Chaini Khaini”, says an activist. “This is the manufacturers’ way of circumventing the ban on advertising tobacco products.”

Recent studies have shown that the smokeless forms of tobacco being marketed in India contain over 3,000 harmful substances. About 30 are proven carcinogens, the most dangerous being areca nut. Yes that same harmless betel nut! Growing up, I saw so many women in my family eat that after a meal.

Smokeless tobacco contains arsenic, cadmium, lead, chromium and nickel which is why activists have been pushing for a ban on these products. India has among the highest rates of oral cancer in the world and 90% of oral cancer patients are tobacco users. One of the main reasons is the high social acceptability, fuelled by ads which show couples sharing paan masala with friends or distributing them at weddings. Smoking lacks social acceptability particularly for women and is banned in public places. Paan masala has no such restrictions. Many people are still unaware of the damage they inflict because they are marketed as mouth fresheners.

Even worse, the Healis Sekhsaria Institute of Public Health, among the leading anti-tobacco campaigners, warns that gutkha use is rising among children in India. Its report says about 5 million children under the age of 15 years are addicted to gutkha or paan masala. Gutkha was identified as a problem in Mumbai municipal schools as early as 1997 by children between the ages of 10 to 15 years. 

The long term solution is to crack down on manufacturers of these products. But banning these advertisements which flood our screens is a small step towards saving many lives.

16 thoughts on “The Deadly Pouch that Kills

  1. Sounds terrible, Shai. Remember how for any good South Indian festival, the beatle nut & leaves is such a done thing – wonder if they had a logic for this ancient custom (numb
    the senses to all the madness?)

  2. I share the concern. There is alarming and unregulated increase in the usage of these products. It took 5 decades for concerted medical and public action to ban cigarette smoking. We cannot afford the delay and allow the usage of potentially harmful products.
    Many school children use paan parag and we have seen submucous fibrosis at young age and white patches which are precancerous.

    Best to bring these products under drugs and cosmetics act and force them to declare the contents and subject them to same scrutiny.

    Need to act now to avert a preventable disaster.

  3. Wow an eye opener !! thank you for sharing this information the harmless madrasi supari seems to be more than just a supari !

  4. I can’t believe it’s marketed as a mouth freshener!
    Well, as they say, tobacco is the only legal product that when used as directed causes death. I agree with the doctor that these products should be regulated. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 80% of smokers began before the age of 18.

    • Hi Debbie, the problem here in India is the lack of political will. Gutkha companies have huge clout; they fund election campaigns etc so it has been a tough fight for anti- tobacco activists who have been trying to pressurize the government to enact strong laws. As is the case with the influential tobacco lobby in the U.S I imagine

  5. the tobacco lobby is stronger than the drug lobby,,,,,,,and we see a lot of children in Mumbai having gutka. Reasons being easy availability, alienation, loneliness and angst related to poverty. What is so important is advocacy against the ‘ tobacco mafia’ , education in schools and aiming at complete ban of tobacco in the country. Children need to be protected and saved from this scourge

    Dr Harish Shetty

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  8. You guys will not gonna believe but its true, use of chaini khaini causes ED ( Erectile dysfunction ) in men.
    I researched a lot on it. So stay away from it !

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