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Wednesday, March 3, 1999 Published at 18:07 GMT


Children buy cancerous 'sweets'

Chewing tobacco is a popular pastime on the Asian sub-continent

Chewing tobacco that causes cancer and is packaged like sweets is available in the UK, dentists have warned.

Doctors say it has caused a mouth cancer epidemic among children on the Asian sub-continent.

The tobacco is mixed with sweeteners and then brightly packaged. Health campaigners say this is designed to attract children to the product.

While it has been singled out as a serious health problem for children in India and Pakistan for some time, it is only now making its way onto the UK market.

One brand, Gutkha, is a particular problem as the packaging does not say it contains tobacco and shopkeepers unwittingly sell it on to children.

Chocolate flavoured tobacco

Chewing tobacco can cause sub mucous fibrosis (SMF) - a hardening of the mouth lining - that can then develop into oral cancer.

[ image: The industry is big business in India]
The industry is big business in India
Professor Raman Bedi of the Eastman Dental Institute for Oral Health Care and Nigel Carter, chief executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, launched a campaign on Wednesday.

They want a clampdown on sales of Gutkha to children.

Professor Bedi said some tobaccos are chocolate flavoured while others are sold as mouth fresheners. Some come with pictures of children's faces on the front.

He said that a survey of 9,000 children last year found that 10% of them chewed tobacco.

"Suddenly there have been all these cases of oral cancer in children, whereas previously it was unheard of," he said.

"It was an illness that was typically suffered by people over the age of 55. Doctors in India are calling it an epidemic.

"One if the most dangerous aspects is that smokers may wait 30 years before they contract cancer whereas in this case children aged 11 and 12 are getting pre-cancerous growths after just two years of chewing."

Spreading quickly

The illnesses the habit cause are not only problematic, they are deadly, he said.

"Mouth cancer is very hard to treat and it spreads very quickly.

"We have no figures because few can afford medical care in India but there is no doubt in the minds of leading health experts that children have died and there will be a major number of deaths if something is not done."

He added that manufacturers were blurring the lines between:

  • Supari, which has always been available as confectionary;
  • Paan masala, which sometimes contains tobacco;
  • Gutkha, which always contains tobacco.

"I think a lot of shopkeepers are selling all of these products naively to youngsters under the age of 16 because they are unaware there is a distinction and that some contain tobacco," Professor Bedi said.

"The cynical approach by the tobacco industry in packaging their products like a sweet is to blame, and it is threatening to cause havoc with children's health."

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