Lesser of two evils? From cigarettes to traditional Indian substitute

Since the Indian government has banned lighting up in public places in an effort to curb the addiction, smokers have turned to a chewable leaf alternative called Paan.

Health officials warn however, it’s not as harmless as some people are led to believe.

Paan is the Indian ancestor of modern day chewing gum. A Paan is various exotic ingredients wrapped in a Betel leaf. The contents of a Paan can be varied to suit individual taste ranging from a sweet concoction called ‘Meetha’, to a stiff tobacco fix.

It has cultural roots and is considered a mouth freshener and digestive. Paan is available from street corners to upmarket stores. The best Indian restaurants serve Paan at the end of the meal. It’s considered a good way to round off an Indian feast.

Chewing Paan is making a comeback among young Indians.

For some it is the taste, but for others it works as a cigarette substitute since smoking has become socially and legally unacceptable, especially after the recent law forbidding smoking in public places.

“Smoking is something which is very visible. So a lot of people, like youngsters, probably don’t like to smoke in front of elders or their boss or whatever. As for Paan tobacco, they can just put it in their mouth and carry it on. So maybe it is more harmful,” says Dr. Neeti Kapur Gupta.

Disguising tobacco in Paan is very effective and easily available at most shops selling cigarettes. The debate over switching to this alternative is taking place in the minds of the young, while older people seem fixed in their ideas – like Alok Rastogi, who says

“It’s difficult to change habits once they are formed. I have been smoking for 25 years and the pleasure I get from smoking I just can't get in a tobacco Paan”.

Although many Indians enjoy the tradition of having an occasional Paan, the fear is that the new tobacco vice may leave a nasty aftertaste.