According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey India 2016–17, nearly 267 million adults (15 years of age and older) in India are users of tobacco. The consumption of both smoked and smokeless tobacco is trending across the country. The main focus of the blog will be to understand the consumption of tobacco among the people in rural Uttar Pradesh.
During my interactions with the rural communities in different villages in various districts of UP, I realized that tobacco consumption was huge. I used to see either a person chewing tobacco products or s/he was about to chew them during a conversation. When asked about the reason behind consumption, the answers provided made me more curious about it. The question of whether it is a pain reliever or an addiction rose into my mind.
Tobacco and its origin?
The English word ‘tobacco’ originates from the Spanish word tabaco. Tobacco is a plant (Nicotiana tabacum and Nicotiana rustica) that contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive drug with both stimulant and depressant effects. The other nomenclatures of tobacco are cigarettes, cigs, smokes, darts, chew, spit, snuff, dip, shisha, hookah, etc. Tobacco leaves are used to make products that can be consumed in a variety of ways. This includes chewed, sniffed as dry snuff, held inside the lip or cheek as wet snuff, mixed with cannabis, and smoked in “joints.”
How does it feel after consuming?
The stimulant effects of nicotine in tobacco smoke cause an increase in respiration and heart rate as it swiftly reaches the brain. Smoking tobacco lowers blood oxygen levels, which results in a dip in skin temperature. New smokers frequently experience light-headedness, nausea, and coughing or vomiting. Nicotine has significant, nuanced, and complicated impacts on mood. Some individuals believe that smoking makes them more alert, helps them focus, and makes them feel more comfortable. Dopamine is a brain chemical that is increased by smoking. It enhances sensations of pleasure and makes you want to keep smoking.
Narratives in the community
I started to discuss with various small and marginal farmers and landless laborers. That they consume tobacco was evident by looking at their teeth and lips. Following are the narratives from the community. I am sharing it here with their consent.
“I used to suffer from major gastric problems a few years back. I went to the local doctor nearby and got medicine for it. But the pain still persisted. On my second consultation with the doctor, I was advised to start smoking beedi for my stomach. Since then, I have started smoking beedi on a daily basis. And to my surprise, the stomach pain due to gas has stopped occurring. But the only thing is that when I tried to stop smoking, the pain gradually occurred again. Therefore, I am addicted to it as it relieves my pain”– Ramu* ji
“Some years ago, I had a dental pain which was unbearable. I did not chew any tobacco or gutka before. My neighbors and family members advised me to start consuming chewed tobacco. They said tobacco would help in relieving dental pain. I started chewing tobacco, and my pain started reducing. Since a dental check-up costs more than a packet of gutka, I have chosen to use gutka to relieve my dental pain. Also, there is no access to dentists in and around my village. If I stop consuming it, the pain returns.Thus, it has become addictive.”– Sheila* ji
“I am a daily-wage farm laborer. I have to work from early morning until late at night. I am not allowed to sleep or stay inactive the whole day at work. In order to stay active and awake, I started chewing gutka. It helps me stay awake and less hungry throughout the day. In this way, I can work more without having food, resting, or taking a quick nap. I have been consuming gutka for 10 years. It has helped me to stay at work and earn a livelihood for my family.”– Raju* ji
I had the preconceived idea that individuals use tobacco products to get addicted to it. Or because it gives them a high or as a mouth freshener. When people said they see it as a painkiller, I found it to be surprising.
The truth is that people have become addicted to tobacco products. It is a gradual poison, regardless of whether it is a painkiller or addiction. The long-term consequences of such usage are visible. Such products provide momentary pain relief and keep the mind awake to operate successfully. They have a harmful effect on the body, both mentally and physically.
This misconception that tobacco is a pain reliever rather than an addictive drug or a health danger is concerning. The communities are aware of the negative consequences of tobacco smoking, but they continue to consume it. The interactive session has raised questions on the following three major areas:
- Food insecurity
According to the community, due to the lack of necessary food facilities, family members consume less food. Parents eat less or do not eat at all so that their children may eat properly at least twice a day. The adults begin to consume tobacco products that temporarily reduce hunger and keep them alert when working in the fields. Harvest failure, unemployment, lower daily pay, debt, and other factors all contribute to a shortage of food.
- Primary Health Care
The inactivity and absence of primary health care centers in certain areas have contributed to resorting to this habit of consumption. It had an indirect or direct influence on people resorting to fast fixes such as smoking or chewing tobacco products. The financial constraint to avail healthcare services like dental care also plays a huge role here.
- Mental Health Care
The constant worry about food and money has a major impact on the community. The concern is felt in the community’s households due to issues like days of hunger, debt, low pay, crop failure, etc. It has created an indirect influence on an individual’s mental health—not only on the sole breadwinner but also on the family as a whole. People who consume gutka or pan masala are put in a state of mind where they can work for hours without having any concerns or tension.
*Names changed to protect the identity.