Mumbai: It is wrongly believed that pan masala is a sort of innocent bystander that has become a casualty in the nation’s war against cancer-causing tobacco. Although the Food & Drugs Administration (FDA) of 11 states have banned gutka and pan masala together in a well-reasoned way, the common man thinks that pan masala is a simple mouth-freshener that even children may safely consume. To leave a back door open for the banned gutka industry to make a re-entry in the guise of pan masala, it is being argued in many high courts that pan masalas must not be banned. On 12th September, the Bombay High Court will be hearing the petition filed by the gutka/pan masala industry, seeking to get pan masala excluded from the scope of this industry. This was reported in The Times of India today. One sincerely hopes that the public interest will prevail over commercial interest.
Pan masala is not just an innocent mixture of areca nut cuttings, food flavours and sweeteners. It is a specialized product engineered for causing addiction, and as such, it is an ingenious mix of traditional items and innovative chemicals. New formulations are constantly being developed and introduced on the market to encourage initiation and sustained use of these products, and allied products that deliver higher “highs” to addicts. Inexpensive portion sizes and packaging render these products convenient for people to buy, carry and use, and new flavourings are tried out to appeal to young and old alike. Although these products are promoted as “safe” alternatives to tobacco smoking or chewing, no pan masala is actually safe. In fact, some varieties are more addictive and more harmful than cigarettes.
The similarity in packaging and marketing of gutkha and pan masala is no accident. They all work together as a team. Pan masala initiates unwary people and gets them to set foot on the slippery slope of addiction. Gutka, khaini etc are further down that trail.
How does the mystique of pan masala work? Pan masala is based on supari, i.e. arecanut or betelnut, which is a traditional item, and a part of hindu religious ceremonies. In some communities, when the bride’s father accepts the proposal made on the groom’s behalf, he invites the groom’s side to come and have paan-supari. This engagement ceremony is called the supari-taking ceremony. Although the cancer-causing effects of supari are well publicized, it is considered safe, maybe because it is considered auspicious!
And that is one reason why traditional people like Mrs Purnima Dave, aged 36, from Banswara, Rajasthan, are coming into doctors’ clinics with cancer of the mouth, head, neck and voicebox. Respectable housewives in villages and cities are less likely to indulge in vices like chewing tobacco or gutka, but they don’t think twice before eating supari or pan masala.
Supari is nearly as dangerous for pregant mothers as alcohol drinking and tobacco chewing. If taken during pregnancy, even the unborn babies are harmed by the chemicals present in supari and pan masala. Neonatal withdrawal syndrome is reported in the newborns, and arecoline — a toxic extract of areca nut or supari – is detected in the placenta and the stools of the fetus (called meconium). Arecoline stimulates the mother’s central nervous system, reducing blood flow to the fetus. The chemicals and heavy metals present in the areca nut causes abortion, premature delivery, lower birth weight and reduced birth length.
When taken by women who are trying to concieve, supari and pan masala reduces fertility and likelihood of conception. In men, pan masala ingredients damage the testes and the sperms. A study conducted by A Kumari, B N Mojidra and others at the National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, assessed the damage caused by pan masala to the male reproductive system in mice. Swiss albino male mice were randomly divided into 7 groups receiving either standard control diet or pan masala-containing diet. Three doses (0.5%, 1.5% and 3%) of pan masala plain (PMP) as well as pan masala with tobacco (PMT) gutkha were given for a period of 6 months. Sperm count and production were significantly decreased in both PMP- and PMT-treated groups. Both gutkha as well as panmasala plain were found to cause testicular damage, plus increase in sperms with abnormal shapes.
BEWARE! PAN MASALA MAY HAVE MORE NICOTINE THAN GUTKA
The ban order by Maharashtra Food and Drugs Administration dated 19 July 2012 highlights the risk posed by Magnesium Carbonate present in pan masala, which leads to hyper magnesia, and sometimes cardiac arrest.
Read Maharashtra’s ban order: http://www.fda-mah.com/
Even pan masala brands marketed as “tobacco-free” contain high levels of nicotine, as revealed by a study commissioned by the Ministry of Health. While gutkha, zarda and khaini are known to contain some tobacco and are sold as such (their manufacturers don’t claim zero-tobacco content), pan masala makers promote and advertise their products as “100 per cent tobacco-less”, as they are subject to review under the 1955 rules of the Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA) Act.
But look at the reality: laboratory analysis of randomly picked pan masala brand samples by the Central Tobacco Research Institute (CTRI), Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh has revealed that Rajnigandha pan masala contains 2.26 gm of nicotine per 100 gm of pan masala. This was actually more than Goa 1000 Gutkha brand, which was found to have 2.04 gm of nicotine per 100 gm of the product. Manikchand’s Gutkha RMD contained 1.88 gm nicotine. Chaini Khaini contained 0.58 gm of nicotine while Raja Khaini had 1.02 gm of nicotine per 100 gm of the smokeless product.
A parallel study by the Food Research and Standardisation Lab, Ghaziabad under the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) showed that Rajnigandha pan masala contained exceptionally high nicotine levels.
In all the tested samples, pH levels were found to be carefully fine-tuned to facilitate rapid absorption of nicotine into the blood, delivering to the consumer the desired kick. The intention is clearly to make pan masalas highly addictive to one-time users and repeat-users alike.
In the words of Prakash C Gupta, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, “The chewing of betel quid without tobacco was not perceived as a public health problem until recently. The situation changed drastically with the advent of Pan Masala and Gutkha. These products were specifically targeted and marketed to the young. As a result, prevalence of use has increased among young individuals as has the prevalence of oral squamous fibrosis.” Combined with Indian social habits (such as traditionally offering supari or pan masala as ‘mukhwas’ or mouth-fresheners after meals), these products are deadly. Pan masala and gutka have a very high cancer burden, equalling or exceeding the cancer burden of smoking.
(Krishnaraj Rao is a prominent Right-to-Information activist and journalist based in Mumbai. He can be reached at email@example.com )