KOLKATA: When teachers of Hindu School saw a Class XII student smoking outside the gates some time ago, they immediately informed his parents. The headmaster made sure that he faced disciplinary action.

But not all kids can be reined in. A recent survey, conducted by the World Health Organization and India-West Bengal Global Youth Tobacco, reveals that 15% of students in city schools are addicted to some form of tobacco or the other.

What's even more shocking is that the trend is not restricted to just boys. Kolkata and, the entire state put together, has one of the the highest percentages of girls addicted to tobacco in the country.

"The prevalence of tobacco use and smoking amongst school children, especially girls, have been found to be alarmingly high in West Bengal compared to other states," said Saddichha Sahoo, a senior WHO consultant.

Of the 15% kids using tobacco products, 10% prefer gutkhas and other chewable products while 5.1% are addicted to cigarettes and bidis. The study projects that at least 26.9% students, who haven't yet taken to cigarettes would turn into smokers in a year's time.

Among the users of tobacco products, 14.8% are school students. Boys make up 16.5% of the segment, while girls constitute 8.1%. Among the smokers, there are 1.4% girls and 6.1% boys. Peer pressure plays an important role since 7.7% children had friends, who were all smokers.

This was also evident from the response to a query on attitude. A significant 37.3% of the boys thought that boys who smoke or chew tobacco have more friends and 21.6% even thought them to be attractive. In case of girls, these figures stood at 13.1% and 16.1%, respectively.

School authorities accept that smoking among students has been on the rise for some time now. Many principals and teachers say they have caught students smoking outside the premises.

"We have caught some students smoking. Action was taken. They were sent for counselling as well. Tobacco use and smoking among students is a major problem we are facing today. Most of the adults, who are smokers now, started in their early teens," said Sunirmal Chakraborty, principal of La Martiniere for Boys.

Rabindranath Haldar, the headmaster of Sanskrit Collegiate School, said it was difficult to stop students from going out during tiffin breaks. "If they go out and smoke, nothing can be done," he said.

Malini Bhagat, principal of Mahadevi Birla girls' school, agrees. "Surveys have showed that the highest number of female smokers is from West Bengal. We cannot leave out the younger generation. The problem is rampant among students of classes IX, X, XI and XII. Many take to smoking to just find out what it is all about and then they cannot quit. Parents smoking in front of their children as well as television and film characters smoking have an impact on the tender mind of children. We try to counsel the students about the bad affect of smoking," she said.

The survey reveals that 58.5% live in homes where others smoke and 50.6% of them have at least one parent who is a smoker. Surprisingly, only 8.8% of them smoke at home. The rest prefer to do it in after school hours or in other public places where none will bother. In nuclear families with both parents working, there isn't anybody to keep a watch on what the child is doing. As many as 61.1% go out and buy cigarettes on their own.

Though there are notice boards hanging at nearly every cigarette shop that nobody below 18 will be sold tobacco products, 81.3% have never been refused.

State school education minister Partha De admitted that more needed to be done to educate students about the ill-effects of smoking and the accompanying health hazards. "We have started conducting awareness programmes through the teachers about how to improve lifestyle. This includes avoiding bad-habits like use of tobacco and smoking.

The programme has to be further tuned up," De said.

 False sense of adulthood drives habit

KOLKATA: The findings of the World Health Organization and India-West Bengal Global Youth

Tobacco Survey are indeed revealing. Leading cancer, chest and cardiac specialists from the city agree with the findings that more schoolchildren have taken to smoking in the recent years.

"We agree with the findings because of the high number of pre-cancer cases among the young age group that come to our clinic. These are very young people — mostly in their early 20s who come with black and white patches inside their mouths. These are indications of prolonged use of tobacco, be it smoking or chewing tobacco," said Gautam Mukhopadhyay, surgical oncologist.

In West Bengal, tobacco-related cancers top the list. Cancer in the head and neck made up for 32 per cent of the total cancer cases.

Psychologists suggest that children in the age of 13-15 have a false sense of adulthood and try to imitate what grown-ups do to show that they have matured. Curiosity, eagerness to "get a high" and peer pressure also prompts them to try out narcotic substances.

"Nicotine causes anxiety, reduces concentration and induces a state of agitation in the minds. Children are more at risk because of their tender age. This is a very common problem," said Debashish Roy, a psychologist.

Health experts are alarmed at the survey's findings. "This is a very alarming situation. Whenever we get a person below the age of 30 with a cardiac arrest, we understand there is a history of smoking associated. Going by the survey findings, we are sitting on top of a volcano which will erupt in, let's say, 10 years from now," said Ajay Kaul, cardiac-surgeon.

Clinically, exposure to tobacco at an early age leaves a person with the threat of long-term pulmonary problems, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, weakened heart conditions and peripheral vascular diseases.

Lungs, oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, heart, arteries are some of the vital human organs that tobacco affects. "The younger the age at which a person starts smoking, the greater the possibility of the internal organs weakening," said Kaul.

The physical health isn't the only aspect that gets affected at the impressionable age in which most of the students in this age group are.

Health and psychological experts point to the easy availability of cigarettes and tobacco products in shops close to schools.

"There has been hardly any concerted effort to curtail the availability of tobacco products.

Paying lip service is not going to help. The government needs to take some action to curb this habit among the younger generation," said a senior chest specialist with the RG Kar medical college and hospital.

 Glare on smokers at government offices

KOLKATA: Smokers at Writers' Buildings, other government offices and public places may have to quit smoking soon as the state government is all set to appoint authorised officers to take them to task.

A fresh notification is going to be issued to a number of officials, who would be acting as authorized officers, said Dr Bidyut Mazumdar, consultant, WHO and Government of India on National Tobacco Control Programme.

While speaking at a seminar organized by the West Bengal Voluntary Health Association and Chittaranajan National Cancer Institute on bidi and public health, he said these officers would initiate action against the smokers.

Mazumdar, who looks after the state's tobacco control programme, remained silent when asked about action that can be taken against chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who enjoys his puff in the comfort of his chamber at Writers'.

News from: The Times of India

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