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.