Gutka Ban in Karachi: Good Move, But Is It Real?

Posted on March 2, 2009
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Food, Health & Disease, Society
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Adil Najam

I first read about the Gutka ban in Karachi at Karachi Metroblog. One hears that the Mayor of Karachi is coming down hard on the subject, that police is actually fining people using and shops selling gutka, and that the beginnings of a black market have emerged. But I can’t seem to get much information on whether the ban is permanent, still in place, or what is happening with it. A ban on this addictive and carcinogenic substance is clearly a good idea. Meaningful implementation of such a ban is an even better idea. But ultimately, one is left wondering just how real is this ban or its implementation.

I am glad that KBM highlighted this issues because one would have missed the story in the newspapers. Even a thorough google search found little to nothing about it. This despote the fact that this is something with deep and immediate health impacts for hundreds of thousands of people. Reportedly, Karchi has 55 percent of oral cancer patients of the country, because of things like gutka, chalia, paan, mainpuri, etc. Yet, the mainstream media seems totally quiet on this. Maybe they know something we do not.

It turns out that there was a wave of local governments in India who banned gutka. It seems in India they even have “gutka barons,” maybe they also exist in Karachi. Recently, pressure has also been mounting to do the same in Karachi (I am not sure just how much of Pakistan’s total consumption is Karachi-based?). The news story I found from February 17 in Daily Times seems to suggest that the ban was temporary for 7 days only.

City Nazim Mustafa Kamal has imposed section 144 of CrPC for seven days on manufacturing, sale and purchase of gutka, sweetened beetle-nuts and mampuri within the limits of City District Government Karachi (CDGK). In this regard, CDGK Deputy District Officers Revenue with special magisterial powers have started conducting raids on manufacturing and sales outlets. During the raids, these magistrates have fined the sellers of the banned products and have arrested several involved in the menace.

Sources privy to the matter said that these products are smuggled from Afghanistan and India in bulk quantities and then are locally packed. There are only a few brands of gutka being manufactured in the city and Hyderabad. However, measures such as the imposition of section 144 and imposing a fine on offenders have just been able to decrease the open sale of gutka and gutka addicts are still able to purchase it.

It is pertinent to mention here that Sindh Home Minister Dr Zulfiquar Mirza had stated on the floor of the Sindh Assembly that he could eliminate the menace of gutka within three days but due to tremendous political pressure he is unable to do so.

A very short item in The News, two days before this, was more revealing of just why this ban may be so difficult to implement:

Provincial Minister for Home Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Mirza informed Sindh Assembly on February 12, that he was facing pressure from politicians against taking action to ban the sale of Gutka. He revealed that there was so much pressure on him from politicians that he had to “sacrifice” one district police officer (DPO), who had presumably taken action against the sale of Gutka. He declared that if political leaders stopped “Sifarish” (recommendations), he could eliminate Gutka and “mainpuri” within three days.

The reason to be skeptical about what is happening and whether it is still in place is not just the media silence. It is also the fact that just around exactly this time last year, the same ban was imposed – obviously to little or no effect. The News, in a March 2, 2008 story (a full year ago) expalins other reasons why (a) we should worry about gutka and (b) why it is difficult to control:

Despite the ban on the manufacture, sale and consumption of gutka in Karachi by the City District Government Karachi (CDGK), there are nearly 500 paan shops in the village of Ibrahim Hyderi, out of which 200 sell gutka. The addictive paste is usually supplied to the entire city from here. Even though it is banned in the city, manufacturers usually buy raw materials for gutka from Karachi openly. Gutka is also easily available everywhere in the city — Landhi, Korangi crossing to Qayumabad, Nazimabad, New Karachi, Akhtar Colony and Saddar are just some of the areas where it is available. Besides Karachi, it is also available all over the province, especially in Thatta and Badin districts. In fact, the demand for gutka is so high that some of the cabins are selling anywhere between 160kg to 200kg of gutka daily.

A mixture of betel nuts, choona (limestone), katha, tobacco, ispaghol that is sometimes tinged with opium, gutka is a highly addictive mixture popular among the lower income groups of the city. Haroon Rajai, a gutka addict, said that all his family members which includes his four-year-old son as well as an octogenarian are addicted to gutka. Another gutka consumer, Gulam Hussain told The News that “when I don’t get gutka, my mind does not work. I feel lethargic.” He added that he consumes five to six packets of gutka every day, thus spending Rs25 to Rs30 daily. Some of the addicts consume up to 12 packets daily. According to one gutka consumer, “the consumers have gone broke buying it, while the sellers have made millions.”

There are several types of gutka. However, the locally known substance choru is considered the most dangerous of all. “It gets you hooked onto the substance,” said one consumer, adding that “if you don’t get charas (marijuana) it is fine, but if you don’t get choru, and you don’t have the money to buy it, you will beg for it.”

Anwar, a manufacturer, who claims that he does not add choru to his brand of gutka, said that “we keep betel nut wet for the whole night. Then, we mix choona and katha in it the next day.” Anwar is also a consumer. Whenever the quantity of choona is more than what is normal, it causes a burning sensation in the mouth. Anwar said that it is actually tobacco that causes addiction. “Shopkeepers use tobacco as dressing on gutka which leads to addiction,” he said. The tobacco that is used for the dressing is named Zaunr, chota Raja Jani, bara Raja Jani, 800 tobacco, Shahzadi, Dilnasheen, and Chandan.

Interestingly enough, gutka is not openly manufactured anymore. It is mostly manufactured in houses as the so-called ban has made it illegal to produce gutka.

One manufacturer, on condition of anonymity, told The News that they pay nearly Rs2,000 per month as bribe to the police so that they can sell gutka freely. He added that “whenever there is a ban or there are chances of a raid, the manufacturers are immediately alerted by the police.” He also that he does not use any drugs while making the substance. Moreover, he added that at the same time, other police stations take bhatta (protection money) from both consumers as well as the sellers. If they are unable to pay, they are arrested. Anwar, however, said that he does not pay protection money to the police anymore. “When I had my cabin I paid them, but now I don’t. Once they took me also,” he added.

Unfortunately, It is not just the consumption of gutka that is dangerous. Manufacturing it is equally harmful to human health. The labour involved in the production wears plastic gloves while mixing the choona and katha – given the corrosive nature of both these things and its adverse affect on skin — with betel nuts for protection. Sadly, the degree of the addiction in general consumers is such that most of them carry stocks of gutka with them while traveling, as one consumer said: “I keep it with me in case it is not available where I’m visiting. I cannot live without choru.”

To be fair, let me acknowledge that I know fairly little about gutka or guthka. I have never used it. Actually, even paan is not my thing. But from everything I can find on the subject, gutka is not just a ‘bad’ habit, it is a dangerous habit. For example, here is some information from a fact sheet from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Betel quid with tobacco, also known as gutka (ghutka or gutkha) is a dry, relatively nonperishable commercial preparation that consists of betel leaf (Piper betle), tobacco, areca nut (Areca catechu), catechu (extract of the Acacia catechu tree), and slaked lime (calcium hydroxide). Spices—such as cardamom, saffron, cloves, anise seeds, turmeric, and mustard—or sweeteners are also added as flavorants. Gutka is available in sachets and tins. It is consumed by placing a pinch of the mixture in the mouth between the gum and cheek and gently sucking and chewing. The excess saliva produced by chewing may be swallowed or spit out.

Scientific studies examining the health effects of betel gutka have found it to be carcinogenic to humans. Specifically the following cancers and conditions have been associated with using gutka:

  • Oral precancerous lesions (including leukoplakia and erythroplakia.)
  • Oral submucous fibrosis (OSF), a precancerous lesion characterized by stiffness of the oral mucosa resulting in an inability to open the mouth. OSF is an irreversible condition and treatment consists of cutting the fibrous bands of the mouth. OSF may extend into the esophageal tract.
  • Oral cancers, predominantly squamous cell carcinomas of the lip, mouth, tongue, and pharynx.
  • Esophageal cancer.
  • Reproductive health outcomes. One study found that pregnant women in India who used gutka had a threefold increased risk of having a low birth weight infant.
  • Nicotine addiction.

I realize that some might consider this to be a thing about ‘culture’ and ‘tradition.’ I do not think it is. There is nothing cultural or traditional about condemning a 4-year old child to a life of oral cancer!

7 responses to “Gutka Ban in Karachi: Good Move, But Is It Real?”

  1. Hassan says:

    Too bad that this really important topic got lost in this breaking news.

    This is a serious problem for so many people and the tragedy is that so many people think there is nothing wrong with this gutka and paan etc.

  2. Dr. Amir says:

    I hope the ban is real, because the cancer being spread is.

    There are too many people who think this is harmless and that is the problem. It is not harmless. Giving gutka to your kids is like giving them poison.

  3. Qaiser Ali says:

    There is so much money at stake if you consider how many people use these things and plus so many people from up high to low down are involved that implementing this ban is going to be impossible. Also in a place with so much tension maybe a little relief is not a bad thing.

    Bottom line, this ban is no different from past ones and will end the same way.

  4. Aamer says:

    Good Move? yes

    Will it be successful? very skeptical.

  5. Daud says:

    I had always thought that this was relatively harmless thing. Nothing serious in terms of addiction or disease.

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