Young Indian women falling victim to tobacco?

New Delhi, May 31 (IANS) Did you know that 8.3 percent of Indian girls between 13-15 years of age consume some form of tobacco? The statistic acquires significance as World No Tobacco Day is observed Monday with an emphasis on the marketing of tobacco to women.

‘Adolescent girls are a major target of opportunity for the tobacco industry, they are trying to hook young girls through advertisements,’ Bhavna Mukhopadhayay, executive director of the NGO Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI), told IANS.

‘Advertisements like Fiama Di Wills bring back a well-known cigarette brand. Certain advertisements in magazines inform that girls who smoke can become slim and glamourous.’

May 31 is marked by the World Health Organisation as World No Tobacco Day and this year’s theme is ‘Gender and tobacco with an emphasis on marketing to women’.

In India, the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products to youngsters below 18 is banned. But the Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS) 2009 for India found that 8.3 percent of girls in the 13-15 age group consume some form of tobacco. Around 2.4 percent of the girls consume cigarettes and 7.2 percent consume other tobacco products.

A new WHO report, ‘Women and Health: Today’s Evidence, Tomorrow’s Agenda’, says tobacco advertising is increasingly targeting girls.

Data from 151 countries reveals that around seven percent of adolescent girls smoke cigarettes as opposed to 12 percent adolescent boys. In some countries, the number of girls who smoke cigarettes equals that of boys.

Many girls in Indian cities who smoke consider it ‘cool’. Working women cite peer pressure, stress at home and workplace and odd working hours as reasons. Several girls aged between 15 and 20 frequent hookah bars for fun and ‘relaxation’.

Although owners of hookah bars vehemently deny breaking the law, youngsters can be seen puffing away inside.

‘Around 10 popular hookah bars function in Delhi alone and many ask their customers for age proof,’ said Ashok Srivatsav, a hookah manufacturer.

But Komal Sharma, 15, a frequent visitor to hookah bars in Delhi, said: ‘I often go with friends to a hookah bar in Vasant Vihar but no one asks me for any ID proof.’

Gynaecologists point out that diseases such as chronic bronchitis and even cancer of urinary bladder or stomach can be caused by smoking hookahs.

Admits a staffer at a hookah bar, ‘Flavoured hookahs definitely contain nicotine and many youngsters initiate the smoking habit with it. Schoolchildren, particularly girls, frequent these places.’

As per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), over 54 million women use some form of tobacco. Apart from smoking, women in India, particularly from rural areas, use smokeless tobacco like gutka, paan masala with tobacco, mishri and gul.

Many unwittingly become tobacco victims.

‘While many girls use tobacco as a fad or for relaxation, many rural women work as beedi rollers for hours and suffer from tobacco related diseases,’ said Mukhopadhayay.

‘Approximately, there are over four million women beedi rollers and two million tendu leaf pluckers in India. Handling and inhaling tobacco dust and volatile components of tobacco puts them at a high risk of cancer, chronic lung diseases, tuberculosis, asthma and adverse gynaecological problems,’ she added.

Margaret Chan, director general of WHO, commenting on the report, said: ‘Protecting and promoting the health of women is crucial to health and development – not only for the citizens of today but also for those of future generations.’