The Unhealthy Tradition

Tobacco use is initially pleasurable, but eventually it causes addiction and dependence. It can produce craving, tremor and withdrawal symptoms. This occurs irrespective of whether it is used in cigarettes, cigars, pipes, hookahs, beedis, inhaled as snuff or simply chewed. Addiction has a genetic component, and occurs when a genetically vulnerable person is exposed to tobacco in the right environment.

Tobacco is not a recent discovery. The leaves have been in use since 460 AD. (Cigarettes of sorts date back to the Aztecs and Mayans, who smoked tobacco in hollow reeds and corn husks, not so different from the way it is used today. The custom appears to have originated in the Americas. Precisely in Palenque, Mexico, one finds a temple depicting the first known illustration showing a man smoking- Ed.) Early European sailors like Christopher Columbus are credited with spreading and popularizing the use of tobacco all over the world.

The habit of smoking starts young, usually around the age of 15 years. It is tried secretly and enjoyed as a forbidden illegal activity. It provides a false sense of maturity. 10% of the boys and 2.5% of the girls between 15-18 have tried tobacco. Many go on to become addicts. Developed countries have tried to counter this problem by having a legal age for the purchase of tobacco products. We have no such recourse in India.

Cigarettes and beedis can be purchased without hassles in most of the neighborhood shops. Smoking was always considered macho so men smoked openly once they overcame fear of parental authority. Women, in most cultures, had to resort to secretive hidden use of tobacco, chewing it, brushing their teeth with it or using it as snuff. Smoking became socially accepted in women in the 20th century. Today both women and men are equally addicted to tobacco. Women do not really have to reach out for that first puff. Many are victims of second hand smoke (passive smoking). If the unfortunate victim (usually women and sometimes children) lives in close proximity to a smoker, they also suffer from the same deleterious effects without the habit (All pain and no pleasure).

Smoking may appear sophisticated, but eventually smokers develop bad breath, smelly clothes, yellow teeth and nails, brittle skin, wasted money, and bad health. These are just the mild reversible effects. Tobacco can cause heart disease, stroke, multiple cancers, respiratory diseases and respiratory failure, all expensive and chronic illnesses. Female users are likely to be relatively infertile, have smaller, sicker babies, and have more miscarriages. They also have more complications in pregnancy are at greater risk for breast cancer, early menopause and osteoporosis.

Cigarettes actually cause more deaths than AIDS, illegal drugs, car crashes, homicides, and suicides combined. Smoking already accounts for 900,000 deaths a year in India and this number is predicted to increase. Direct or indirect effects of smoking account for 20% of all male deaths and 5% of all female deaths between the ages of 30 and 69. Smoking also shortens the lifespan by 10-15 years. Tobacco companies have known about the destructive health effects of tobacco and the addictive power of nicotine for at least 40 years.

There is no “safe form of tobacco, “light” cigarettes and beedis have the same carcinogenic ingredients as regular cigarettes. They all contain lead, ammonia, benzene, DDT, butane gas, carbon monoxide, arsenic, and polonium 210. Menthol and other cooling agents in light cigarettes increase the addiction and potentiate the carcinogenic effect. The Indian government has started affirmative action. Advertisements for cigarettes are banned on television, in the movies, the radio and hoardings. Smoking in public places like trains, buses, offices and educational institutions is against the law. Chewing tobacco has been banned in a few states.Medication, the sustained release form bupropion SR, is marketed in India. It reduces the urge to smoke by affecting the same chemical messengers in the brain that are activated by nicotine. It is expensive, the dosage has to be individualized, and it has to be taken for a prolonged period. Nicotine patches and gum are available to reduce the craving. Yoga and meditation help to provide the will power to quit. Acupressure has been used with moderate success. Most young smokers start smoking convinced that they have the willpower to quit whenever they want to. In actual fact 90 % are still smoking five years later. Many sincerely cannot visualize the future and believe that complications will side step them and effect others! It is never too late. Smokers who do manage to quit will, on average, live longer and be healthier than those who do not. Anyone who wants to quit has to grit their teeth and “just do it.”

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