STRAIGHT TALK

According to dental doctors, Paan, Chhalia, Gutka , the ‘Sweet Poison’ and smoking is a growing menace in our society and is causing oral diseases, which include mouth and throat cancer and is the second most common cause of cancer in children and adults, in Pakistan.

Gutka is prepared from a mix of tobacco and other hazardous and unhygienic substances and has been linked with the rising incidents of oral cancer. At the same time, according to reports from the University of Karachi, certain brands of sweet chalia are addictive, as they contain traces of habit forming substances. Men, women and children in many villages in the interior of Sindh are addicted to this dangerous and deadly slow poison and we are creating a generation of zombies.  

The threat of this looming disaster was brought to our attention by my friend, Dr. Mervyn Hosein, a leading Oral Maxillofacial Surgeon, many years back and since then, Helpline Trust has repeatedly raised these important facts in their seminars, TV Talk Shows.   Unfortunately, even though its sale has been banned by the Sindh Government, these products are still freely available in the market and are having a devastating effect on the oral health of the community, especially children.

In the last few months, Dr. Shahnaz Khalid, who looks after our Homoeopathic Clinic and is a Trustee of Helpline Trust, together with three other doctors and members of Helpline Trust have visited government and private schools and explained in detail about the harmful effects of this ‘Sweet Poison’ to low-income parents and their children.

They have given presentations on the issue, while doctors from Hamdard University have given dental check-ups to the students and distributed flyers and posters, showing the deadly effects of chewing gutka , paan and chhalias.

According to a recent survey involving test results of various sweet suparis, it was found that they contained addictive and other harmful substances, which cause lung cancer. Our team has presented various pictures of patients’ suffering from mouth cancer, caused by chewing gutka , in order to emphasize their point and have warned students to stop chewing these deadly Sweet Poisons for the sake of their health. Some time back, we had drawn the attention of the authorities to the dangers of releasing 300 containers of imported contaminated betel nuts into the market, which product had been declared unfit for human consumption by AKU.

Each container had contained 27 tons of contaminated and poisonous betel nuts and if the containers were released, over 8000 tons of betel nuts could end up in over 5 million packets of sweet supari. 

These packets could then end up in paan shops, school tuck shops and other outlets all over Pakistan and would be consumed by thousands of unsuspecting citizens, including children, who would be exposed to the danger of oral cancers. The risks involved were horrendous and frightening.

We, including Pakistan Medical and Dental Associations, had taken up the matter in the SHC and had recommended that the entire consignment be destroyed or it would play havoc with the health of the public, especially children.

There were also apprehensions, that once the consignment had been released, there was no guarantee that it would not be used in the manufacture of food items, as no check was possible.

Unfortunately, no effective steps were taken and the entire matter was brushed under the carpet and the fate of the 300 containers, containing the contaminated betel nuts still remains a mystery. 

The Sindh Government had once again announced a ban on the manufacture and sale of gutka and supari, but unfortunately this is the 10th ban on these products and despite which, these deadly poisons are still openly available in every pan and retail shop, in school canteens, with hawkers at railway stations and all public places all over Pakistan.

We have also suggested that there should be a ban on advertising sweet supari on TV, billboards and on the electronic and print media. Moreover, sports, film and TV artistes must be requested not to appear in advertisements that promote these items, in view of school-going children being influenced by these advertisements. A non-governmental organization, working for better child health, has also found that over 60% of the students in the city were addicted to sweet and scented betel nuts (chhalia), betel leaves, gutka , cigarettes and shisha.

The survey also revealed addiction to this Sweet Poison in children, aged from 4 to 16, who belonged to both low and high-income groups, studying in both government and private schools. The addicts were prone to developing health complications involving gums, mouth, throat, lungs, liver, stomach and even prostate cancer. Another survey team had visited 46 government and private schools in various areas of Karachi, including Malir, Nazimabad, Saddar, Liquatabad, DHA, etc. Shockingly, over 90% admitted that they had habitually been consuming betel nuts, sweet supari, gutka , shisha and cigarettes.

Despite our best efforts, we have not been successful in eradicating this menace and in some areas, our doctors and volunteers have even been warned and prevented by the local residents from visiting schools in their areas.  However, according to the latest news, a bill has been introduced in the Sindh Assembly to ban the manufacture, promotion and sale of gutka and mainpuri. Violators would be liable to imprisonment or a fine, or to both. We hope that through our efforts, we will be able to galvanize the Sindh Government to strictly enforce the ban on the sale of gutka , in letter and in spirit. If they fail to do this, the looming tragedy of wide-spread oral cancers will become a reality in Sindh and the a majority of children in this province will end up with this affliction, mainly due to the past and present negligence of Governments, in failing to enforce its writ and the Rule of Law.