Unregulated sale of smokeless tobacco can spread Covid, doctors warn

New Delhi, August 24 (IANS): Given their ability to abet the spread of coronavirus, doctors and health professionals are advocating stringent regulations on chewing tobacco and smokeless tobacco products like 'gutka', and 'pan masala' variants.

Doctors and advocacy groups are demanding similar restrictions on chewing and non-smoking tobacco products as on smoking tobacco products.

Shram, a self-help group working in collaboration with doctors and professionals in the field of health and education to build awareness against tobacco and alcohol abuse, has appealed to Union Minister of Health & Family Welfare Harsh Vardhan and Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to regulate the unorganised manufacturing, distribution and sale of smokeless tobacco and other non-virginia tobacco in India to curtail their widespread consumption and protect the health of citizens.

Dr Pranasmita Kalita from Shram made an appeal for introducing a regulatory framework for trading of smokeless tobacco.

"Smokeless tobacco industry in India is majorly an unorganised sector that sees producers, manufacturers and distributors take advantage of it being outside any regulatory or taxation structure. This has led to widespread exploitation of labour and massive tax evasion. The need of the hour lies in the government taking into account this crisis and introduce policies and laws to regulate and ensure legally taxed trading of smokeless tobacco and its products," he said.

Meanwhile, doctors also opined that the need for regulations to curtail use of smokeless tobacco is even more significant during the COVID-19 pandemic as this variant of tobacco is mostly chewed and spat, which aids in the spread of coronavirus. "It is well proven that the virus could be airborne. The saliva of a person carries the virus which can travel on aerosols and infect people in proximity," said Dr Chandragouda Dodagoudar, Director, Medical Oncology, Aakash Healthcare & Super Speciality Hospitals, Dwarka.

Dr Dodagoudar also added that COVID-19 or not, India needs a strict regulation policy against smokeless tobacco. He estimated that 80 per cent of cancer cases his hospital receives are consumers of chewing tobacco products. India is considered a hotspot of smokeless tobacco consumption as per many researches.

According to a study published in BMC Medicine, the country accounts for 70 per cent of deaths globally due to chewing of smokeless tobacco. According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey, the average age of tobacco consumers in India is 17.4 years.

While the country has an expansive set of rules and laws to restrict and regulate tobacco used in cigarettes and cigars at par with international norms, smokeless tobacco products and their variants do not fall under this umbrella despite 85 per cent of them being homegrown.

"Steps to tackle the sale, manufacturing and production of smokeless tobacco are of utmost importance now during COVID-19 as products derived from this category of tobacco are chewed and spat instead of being swallowed or breathed in. A definitive regulatory policy and subsequent taxing can play a part in curtailing its widespread consumption," Dr Kalita said.