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Nicotine is more addictive and deadlier than cocaine

Nicotine is more addictive and deadlier than cocaine

On the occasion of "World No Tobbaco Day", Dr Shona Nag talks about why lung cancer is threatening YOUNG India

31st May is marked by WHO as World No Tobacco day and this year’s theme is “Tobacco – a threat to development”. And it truly is… For me as an oncologist and a child of parents who were both smokers, this day has a special significance! I lost my father to lung cancer in 1993 and this served as an impetus for me to take up oncology as a speciality. At that time there were very few treatment options for lung cancer, as it was commonly diagnosed in advanced stages. I saw a 72 year old fiercely independent, strong individual who was a leading Metallurgy consultant of his time, become frail and vulnerable, to the point where he had to be bathed and fed. I watched him slowly die and there was nothing I could do even as a doctor. At that time there was no good chemotherapy or targeted therapy for this disease.

After my father died, my mother who had smoked for 40 years gave up overnight. But 13 years after she quit, she started coughing up blood. When I did her chest X-Ray and saw a lung tumour just like my fathers, there were shivers up my spine. When I broke the news to her, her only response was, “But I gave up smoking 13 years ago and even then…” I explained that the risk for getting lung cancer even after smoking cessation never really comes down to zero. Luckily her disease was confined to the lungs, and both, radiation therapy and chemotherapy helped her lead a near normal existence for 2 years.

Tobacco is a deadly habit, and nicotine is even more addictive than cocaine! Tobacco also puts people at risk for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which severely compromises the quality of life as patients need oxygen, home care and making working difficult. COPD kills more people in India than cancer and heart attacks put together! While smoking is bad for the lungs and the heart, what is worse is the effect it has on non-smokers. Children in particular are extremely vulnerable to smoke and their lungs get damaged very quickly due to the 300 carcinogens in the cigarette smoke. A startling fact is that 5% of all lung cancers are contracted by non-smokers!

A habit seen only in India is tobacco chewing in form paan, sopari etc. It causes cancers of the tongue, cheek, various parts of the mouth and the throat. These oral cancers make up almost 25% of all the male cancers in our country. Another 8% is made up by lung cancer. If just tobacco were to be banned, we could prevent 1/3rd of all our male cancers! The WHO has projected that there will be a 500% increase in the cancer burden in India by 2025 - 250% of which will be due to tobacco use.

My advice as a doctor and a parent is to request people not to smoke. To those addicted, now nicotine tablets, patches are here to help you kick the bucket. Also lung CT scans with low radiation are now becoming available for all those above 40 and are worthwhile to undergo every year for those who may have smoked/or lived around smokers to ensure early detection of any tumour.

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