Twenty-year-old Akhilesh Sharma started chewing pan masala when he was in school. In college, he took to smoking. Two weeks ago, he was wheeled into SSKM Hospital, with end-stage oral cancer. Last week, he died a painful death at home, after the hospital let him go as there was nothing the doctors could do.
Sharma is just one among hundreds of schoolboys picking up a pouch of pan masala in school, and facing the consequences, sooner rather than later
Alarmed at the way students are being drawn towards the ‘done thing’ of chewing pan masala and then graduating to smoking — together they form the single-largest cause of oral cancer — the state health and school education departments have chalked out an awareness drive, commencing from the classroom.
“The situation is frightening,” said state director of health services Prabhakar Chatterjee. “With the lure of tobacco in the chewable form waiting for them at the gates of their schools, it is natural for students to fall victims,” he added, explaining why the tie-up with the school education department was so necessary.
On Monday, oral and maxilla-facial surgeon (surgeries related to the jaw and mouth) Rajarshi Banerjee saw three oral-cancer patients. Two of them were in their early-twenties. “These young men confided that they picked up the habit of chewing pan masala in school and later advanced to alcohol and cigarettes,” Banerjee said. “If only this had been nipped in the bud by some sort of a campaign in school…”
It is here that the school education department has stepped in. Officials have already identified 25 schools in central and north Calcutta, where they will highlight the ill effects of pan masala. “Video clippings showing young patients in pain will be beamed repeatedly,” an official confirmed.
Inspector of secondary schools Hiralal Samanta admitted that the trend was taking on alarming proportions. “We want to motivate children not to get into the habit of chewing pan masala,” Samanta said, adding that the government was “serious” in tackling the problem.
Regular consumption of pan masala works as an irritant inside the mouth that is further aggravated by consumption of alcohol and smoking, causing growth of cancerous cells.
Arya Vidyamandir principal N.K. Pande welcomed the government’s anti-masala move. “We take the strictest possible action against any evidence of pan masala or tobacco-chewing habit,” said the principal, adding that even expulsions were not ruled out.
“We conduct regular checks on students, even searching their pockets, to make sure they are not carrying the carriers of oral cancer,” said Pande. “And there is no mercy for a student caught spitting out the masala,” he added.
Doctors say the teaching community’s apprehensions are not misplaced. “We are very worried at the youth brigade’s susceptibility to oral cancer. Several head-and-neck cancer cases are reported almost everyday and almost all of them have a history of consuming pan masala or chewing tobacco in some form or the other,” said cancer surgeon Gautam Mukhopadhyay. “And these cases are being detected at a stage when very little can be done,” he added.