Tobacco addiction kills Indian 'Superman'

PHOTO: Tobacco addiction kills Indian 'Superman'

MUMBAI - Shafique Sheikh was not a big name in the Indian film industry and few would have heard of him outside Malegaon, his home town in the western state of Maharashtra.

But with cruel irony his death at the age of 25 this week from tongue cancer - an apparent result of a heavy chewing tobacco habit since childhood - just a week after the premiere of his new film, has brought him posthumous fame.

In "Ye Hai Malegaon Ka Superman" (This is Malegaon Superman), Sheikh plays a spoof version of the superhero, fighting an evil "gutkha king" who wants to flood the town with the highly addictive chewing tobacco.

"In the movie he's fighting against smokeless tobacco as Superman but in real life he himself has succumbed to the habit," his doctor Pankaj Chaturvedi, a head and neck cancer surgeon at Mumbai's Tata Memorial Hospital, told AFP.

"He was supposed to be there at the premiere but he could not go. He was very, very sick," he added.

Sheikh's story is depressingly familiar for Indian cancer specialists, increasingly alarmed at a rise in tobacco use in the south Asian country and oral cancer rates among young people.

The slightly built former textile worker first started using gutkha tobacco mix at the age of eight and was consuming between 30 and 40 packets a day until at 18 he was diagnosed with oral sub-mucous fibrosis, which affects the jaw.

The condition later developed into cancer, leading to him having most of his tongue and the glands from both sides of his neck removed.

He also had radiotherapy to stop the disease spreading.

"These patients (with stage four cancer) have almost a 50 per cent chance of the disease coming back," said Chaturvedi, an internationally renowned specialist on tobacco-related diseases.

"It happened to Sheikh within six months. His disease came back in his lungs and spread to the rest of his body. Nothing could be done. He was just on pain-relieving drugs."

Tobacco has been chewed for centuries in India, most commonly as "paan" - betel leaf with tobacco powder, areca nut, slaked lime and catechu (Acacia tree extract) - or "paan masala", a flavoured variety with or without tobacco.

Ready-made packets of gutkha have become popular in recent years, with sachets selling for as little as two rupees (less than 0.5 US cents) each.

Doctors' concern about gutkha use comes because of its use by people of all ages, particularly children, and from all walks of life and its being advertised as tobacco-free or as a breath freshener.

Gutkha, paan and beedis - cheap, hand-rolled tobacco leaves - account for 85 per cent of India's tobacco market, with the remainder taken up by packaged cigarettes.

Chaturvedi said India - the world's second largest consumer of tobacco behind China, with more than 240 million users - is seeing a rise in oral cancers, whereas in the West rates are declining.

The World Health Organization has said the dramatic increase in oral sub-mucous fibrosis is "a new epidemic, especially among the youth... (that) has been attributed to chewing gutkha and paan masala".

"We're seeing a real surge in various oral cancers among young people, who are getting addicted," said Chaturvedi. "Normally we wouldn't have such cancers in youth. About 30 per cent are below 35 years of age.

"It's shocking. That means they're starting at the age of 12 and developing cancers after 10 years' consumption."

"Sheikh was so frustrated with the whole gutkha issue," Chaturvedi said. "He didn't want his children to suffer the same fate.... But through his movie, he wants the message to be spread."