Many of us are justifiably concerned about nuclear wars, weapons of mass destruction and war. Yet we tend to ignore the far more immediate and likely dangers to our lives. In fact we sometimes literally court death with the choices we make—these dangers are available to us freely and cheaply and they are addictive. Almost every person who reads this will have at least five people known to them who are using tobacco in some form. Almost every person who reads this will also know two people who have died of tobacco-related illness. Still people flock to this habit and the government does precious little to stop the sale of these weapons of mass destruction.
World over daily 1 billion men and 250 million women smoke. Almost the same number chew tobacco in developing countries, especially in Southeast Asia. In India, almost 35% of the adult population uses tobacco in some form—a large majority use it in chewable form while the rest smoke it.
Tobacco can be found in various items, some that seem innocuous. For example, “masheri” is traditionally used as a substitute for toothpaste and it contains tobacco. The “friendly” paan we have at many weddings contains tobacco. Then of course there are obvious sources of tobacco such as cigarettes, bidis, gutkha, pan masala. The new fads of hookah and vaping (e-cigarettes) are also just ways to consume nicotine and harmful to us. Thus, tobacco can be accessed in various ways and knowingly or unknowingly harms your body.
Smoked tobacco contains nicotine. Nicotine is a drug which causes physical dependence. Hence, once a person develops the habit, it’s difficult to quit. It also leads to tolerance—the need to increase the dose to achieve the same effect. This is often the cause behind chain smoking.
Nicotine is an alkaloid poison which affects the heart and blood vessels. Hence chronic smokers can develop gangrene (blackening of fingers and toes) which can actually cause their digits to drop off! They are also at a high risk of heart attack because of this.
Smoking is also harmful in women in specific ways. Women on oral contraceptive pills who smoke are at double the risk of heart attacks. Smoking in pregnancy can cause intrauterine growth retardation and even death off the foetus.
Cigarettes are harmful not just because of nicotine. They also contain tar which has many chemicals which damage your heart and lungs. Hence many smokers suffer from lung diseases like bronchitis and emphysema.
Tobacco smoke contains 61 known carcinogens. Tobacco has been implicated in almost 14 cancers. These include lung, oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, pancreas, bladder, nasal cavity, stomach, liver, kidneys, ureter, cervix and myeloid leukemias.
Vaping and hookahs
The new fad of using e-cigarettes and hookah is equally dangerous. E-cigarettes are known to contain particulate matter (in addition to tobacco), which is implicated in causing asthma, coronary artery disease along with lung cancer. They come in interesting flavours to entice young people. In kids consuming these can lead to asthma and poor lung development.
Hookahs, though they contain less tobacco, are traditionally smoked for a much longer time than cigarettes. An average person takes around 50-200 puffs over an hour as compared to 8-12 per cigarette, which becomes the equivalent of smoking 100 cigarettes at one go.
In India, especially in the hinterlands, this is a bigger menace. Children as young as 12 years old, start chewing some form of tobacco. Most of the smokeless forms of tobacco also contain areca nuts which contain the chemical arecholine. Arecholine is also a certified carcinogen and along with tobacco increases the risk of cancer. Smokeless tobacco is implicated in the development of cancers of the oral cavity, pancreas and oesophagus. Other than that, they also cause a condition called sub-mucous fibrosis where the mouth opening becomes progressively smaller and in due course totally closed. It can also give rise to leukoplakia, which are white patches in the oral cavity. These two conditions are also pre-cancerous.
Thus tobacco, in whatever form consumed, damages the body. The stimulant effects are temporary and illusory. The end effects over a period of time are almost always the same—illness and death. Be smart. Quit tobacco.