Lung cancer is on the rise in Bengal but smokers and other tobacco users in the state cannot care less, figures presented by an oncologist from Mumbai's Tata Memorial Hospital suggest.
Pankaj Chaturvedi, a head and neck surgeon, drove home the point with two stark facts - 36 per cent of Bengal's residents consume tobacco, which accounts for, directly or indirectly, 40 per cent of cancer.
Chaturvedi pointed out that 50 per cent of Bengal's males and 19 per cent of the females were addicted to tobacco.
He accused the Bengal government of being "lackadaisical" in enforcing the ban announced by the Centre on the sale of gutkha and flavoured tobacco.
He was surprised to find billboards advertising such products in Calcutta at a time Maharashtra, Bihar and Himachal Pradesh had stopped their sale.
"The number of lung cancer patients in Tata Memorial Hospital from Calcutta and other parts of Bengal has been consistently rising over the past five years," Chaturvedi told Metro before delivering a lecture on "Tobacco Control in India - What is the role of medical community", organised by the Journal of Indian Medical Association at NRS Medical College and Hospital.
The surgeon from Mumbai said he was appaled at the easy availability of cigarettes and other tobacco products near educational institutions in Calcutta.
One of the ways to bring down tobacco consumption, he pointed out, is to raise the taxes. "In Bengal, the tax on cigarettes is only 25 per cent. In Rajasthan and Maharashtra, the figures are as high as 65 per cent and 40 per cent, respectively," he said.
The Global Adult Tobacco Survey 2010, conducted by the Union ministry of health and family welfare, revealed that tobacco consumption in Bengal was higher than the national average.
"Twenty-one per cent of Calcutta's population are smokers, compared with the national average of 9 per cent," Chaturvedi said.
Surgical oncologist Gautam Mukhopadhyay said passive smoking, too, was a major cause of cancer. "Ten years back I hardly came across women lung cancer patients. But now there are many women with lung cancer," Mukhopadhyay said.
Many of these women, he pointed out, never consumed tobacco. Passive smoking or air pollution could be the cause. "One-third of the patients visiting clinics in Calcutta had cancer in their mouth or voice box," Mukhopadhyay said.
Chaturvedi said two-thirds of all cancer cases across the country were linked to lifestyle-related factors, including consumption of tobacco.
Speaking at the programme, Nirmal Majhi, the chairman of the Assembly standing committee on health, said he would request chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who is also health minister, to impose higher taxes on cigarettes.
Anti-tobacco activists later told this newspaper the Bengal government was reluctant to enforce the ban on the sale of certain tobacco products.
"The Centre had in 2013 issued a notification asking all state governments to ban certain tobacco products. Bengal only notified the ban for a year. It said the ban would be renewed every year. But I don't think they renewed the ban after the first year," said Sutapa Biswas, executive director of the Cancer Foundation of India, an NGO that works to prevent causes of cancer.