An estimated 100 million people - mostly the poor and illiterate - smoke beedi in India and 200,000 tuberculosis deaths are due to these hand-rolled cigarettes, a health ministry report released on Monday said.
The report, for the year 2004-05 and termed as the first analytical, scientific and systematic study on the trend, said beedi smoking was more harmful than cigarette smoking.
“In India, beedi smoking contributes substantially to death from tuberculosis,” said Health Secretary Naresh Dayal.
Dayal released the beedi monograph that lists the prevalence of beedi smoking in the country, its consequences - both economic and healthwise - and public health policy strategies.
He said there are more beedi smokers than users of any other kind of tobacco products. “Beedi is the most widely used form of tobacco. There are 240 million tobacco users of which 100 million smoke beedi," he said.
The report was prepared with the support of the World Health Organisation, Centre for Disease control and Prevention in Atlanta and the US Department of Health and Human Sciences. It said beedi smoking causes the same diseases as cigarette smoking does - lung cancer, oral cancer, heart diseases, lung disease and addiction - but is more harmful.
“One million of the estimated two million cases of tuberculosis in India are due to smoking. But beedi smokers with tuberculosis are at three times higher risk of death compared to TB patients who are non-smokers,” Dayal said.
About 85 per cent of the world's beedi is produced in India. West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are centres of beedi rolling due to the availability of cheap labour, and there are 290,000 beedi-making units in India, the report said.
“We are making efforts to see that those who work in these fields find alternative jobs,” Dayal said.
Prakash C Gupta, who edited the monograph and is also the director of Research at Healis, Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health in Mumbai that supported the study, said beedi smoking is predominantly a male practice and is more prevalent in rural areas.
Also, it is more common among Muslims, closely followed by Hindus, the report revealed.
Initiation of beedi smoking may begin as early as 8-10 years of age in disadvantaged groups like tribal and street children, while the mid to late teens are a vulnerable age for initiation into beedi smoking.
Its smoke has proven A carcinogens, toxins and poisonous substances. “It contains high levels of tobacco specific nitrosamines - the two most potent cancer causing agents,” Gupta said.
The report said that compared to unfiltered cigarettes, beedi smoke contained higher levels of carbon monoxide, ammonia, hydrogen, cyanide and phenol.
It is harmful for not just smokers, but those exposed to second-hand smoke as well.
“Beedi also harms workers rolling beedis through inhalation of tobacco dust, while farmers and farm workers handling tobacco crop also suffer severe health problems,” the report said.