Gutka causes ulcers to thousands each month. But are authorities interested in implementing the ban?
“My son is the most precious thing to me and I cannot live without him. Similarly, Gutka is like my son too,” says Tahir Khan, a 32-year-old peon of a private company, his fingers stained dark brown from tobacco.
He defines chewing tobacco (Gutka) as a source of tranquility and relaxation. Despite having seen his close friend die of a throat cancer from eating Gutka, the father of one ‘falls sick’ when he does not have Gutka for more than four hours.
Sadaf Saleem, who just graduated from Dow University of Health Sciences, says nicotine in Gutka causes addiction. “It is the combination of areca nut, slaked lime, paraffin, and catechu along with tobacco,” she adds. According to her, it is more harmful than any other form of tobacco because in the case of smoking per se, 20% of the harmful chemicals reach the lungs and almost 80% is exhaled but “Gutka directly enters the system through the oral cavity.”
Gutka has been banned by various federal and provincial governments time and again but there has been no strict implementation.
Fahad Baloch, a new member of the Sindh Bar Council, strongly believes the law enforcement agencies have never seen Gutka as a threat. “A huge chunk of our police is a permanent user of chewing tobacco so how can we expect them to take action?” he says, grinding his teeth.
He closes his eyes for a second, takes a deep breath and explains: “Gutka selling is prohibited according to Pakistan Penal Code, Chapter XIV, Sections 269, 270 and 273.” It falls under these sections because Section 269 implies as, ‘Negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life’; Section 270 says, ‘Malignant act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life’; and Section 273 infers, ‘Sale of noxious food or drink’ respectively. The advocate maintains that the maximum punishment of these offenses is an imprisonment for six months or a fine of Rs3000 or both. However, “maximum punishment is a myth across the world,” he says.
A senior investigative journalist at ARY News, Kamil Arif, says sale of Gutka is a bailable offense. “An operation is underway throughout Karachi but no arrests have been taken place so far. It is mainly because of the lack of interest of our police in this regard. Mostly, when these operations are carried out, in lieu of strict action, the amount of bribe doubles,” he says.
Abdul Qadir, 40, has been selling Gutka for more than four years in a shantytown in Karachi, and has also been picked up by police three times. “I bought a second-hand Foosball table five years ago but it wasn’t generating enough income for my entire family of six members. I used to eat Gutka and the idea of bringing it into the mainstream clicked at the perfect time,” he says. It becomes really hard for him to earn when Gutka gets banned but at the same time, he has lived his “golden days” when he sold a packet gutka worth Rs10 for a whopping Rs60. He earns Rs40,000 to Rs45,000 a month from this Gutka business and “a handsome chunk is gone to the nearby police station every week.” He is certain, “Gutka is sold blatantly in Kharadar, Ranchor Line, Baldia Town, New Karachi, amongst others.”
Gutka can have devastating impact on health.
“150 to 200 patients with ulcers in their mouth come to the hospital every month but most of them have already developed a mouth cancer by that time,” says Dr Saad, a senior ENT specialist at Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, Karachi. He blames illiteracy for the widespread use of Gutka and stereotypes around biopsy. “A lot of people consider biopsy as a catalyst of cancer and often agree for it at a stage when the ulcer is transformed into cancer. A biopsy is essential for the ulcers that don’t heal in ten days,” he says. He explains it is not just a person who gets affected by Gutka but their entire family suffers.
Most of the patients he has treated left Gutka to live a healthy life; he calls them “Gutka survivors.”
Tanveer Alam, a 70-year-old man, sits in a chair at the terrace of his residence, as he cleans his spectacles with the bottom edge of his off-white kurta. “It was the year 2016 when I felt lazy since the start of my day around 6:00 AM when I got up to offer Fajar prayers. After having buttered bread and tea for breakfast, I opened my refrigerator to have a pinch of Gutka just like every other day. The last thing I remember was my wife sprinkling drops of cold water on my face.” He has had a condition in which the heartbeat drops to as low as thirty beats a minute. Gutka has been the reason for his rare disease. However, Alam is one of the few people who learned from their mistakes; he never looked back on the life he once had with Gutka.
On March 4, 2018, the then Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mian Saqib Nisar, while hearing a case, remarked, “Supari and Gutka are injurious to health. You know how serious court is about health issues. You cannot imagine how seriously the court is viewing health issues.” Moreover, National Health Services announced on December 4 that a ‘sin tax’ would soon be imposed on cigarettes. However, notwithstanding its ban, Gutka is still sold and consumed by a huge populace particularly in Karachi.