By Dr. Pankaj Chaturvedi, professor, head & neck surgeon, Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, India
I was excited to attend the International Conference on Public Health in the 21st Century: The Endgame for Tobacco in New Delhi, India, because India is the second largest consumer of tobacco products in the world and the third largest producer of tobacco. That makes the speeches at the conference by Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, and Ghulam Nabi Azad, the minister of Health and Family Welfare, about the country’s commitment to a tobacco-free society extremely significant.
I participated in the American Cancer Society's session on how cancer societies can contribute to global tobacco control. In my presentation, I shared my experience about the Voice of Tobacco Victims anti-tobacco campaign, which I launched to help mobilize tobacco victims and their doctors to confront India’s leaders and demand they enact and implement strong tobacco laws.
I am a head and neck cancer surgeon in a premier cancer centre in India, and two-third of the cancers I treat are related to tobacco. Half of these patients die within 12 months of diagnosis, and those who survive, live with permanent disabilities and often face being ostracized. The smokeless tobacco industry has unleashed an epidemic of such cancers in India, especially among the youth.
I decided to make tobacco victims the face of the anti-tobacco campaign. They turned out to be a powerful tool to politicize tobacco control and sensitize the media. The cancer survivors, the widows, or the orphaned youth got a “worthy” reason for the tragedy that they faced, and some of them took it as the purpose of their existence.
Later, I motivated my cancer specialist colleagues all over India to contribute to tobacco control. These doctors enjoy a unique societal recognition and position that allows them to effectively reach out to the top-most policy makers. As a result of their efforts, the cancer specialists received unprecedented social recognition and accolades, which made them “addicted” to tobacco control.
Death due to tobacco in India is equivalent to 10 packed jumbo jets crashing every day or 10 tsunamis hitting our shores every year. It is heartening that we are now talking of an endgame for a tobacco that is synonymous with disease, disability, and death.