There are many vices that receive their fair share of negative media attention such as alcohol and tobacco, and rightly so because of the harm they can cause to human health. But in this article – Is Pan Masala Harmful, I am going to explain why I feel that pan masala – an underrated addiction, should also receive the same amount of attention.
What is Pan Masala?
Pan masala is actually made from something called pan or paan. Pan translates to ‘leaf’ in English. The leaf is a betel leaf and contains many other ingredients wrapped in it. Eating it builds up a lot of juices in the mouth which people spit unfortunately everywhere in public. After studying the abstract wall art created by pan spitters, I have come to the painful realisation that their palettes are not inspired by Picasso, pun intended.
Ingredients include seeds and spices but the 3 main ingredients wrapped within the leaf are:
- Betel nut
- Slaked lime
Pan masala is a manufactured version of pan that is available to consumers in a packaged form. This allows storing and carrying it without the need to assemble and preserve it like pan. The difference between pan and pan masala is essentially like the difference between milk and milk powder.
Pan and pan masala are often called smokeless tobacco as they not smoked. Consumers chew the pan in their mouths and spit out the juice that builds up. Their smokeless nature makes women prefer them over cigarettes as they’d be looked down upon for smoking.
The IARC Classification of Carcinogens
Anything that has the potential to cause cancer is known as a carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the WHO, researches carcinogens and classifies them into groups that tell us what can, may, may not, and definitely do not cause cancer. Although there are many groups, for the purposes of this article you need to know only about “Group 1” which the IARC defines as a substance that causes cancer. These substances are categorized under group 1 because there is very strong evidence to show that they can cause cancer.
Also read – Does Red Meat Cause Cancer?
Why is Pan Masala Harmful?
Tobacco is a Group 1 Carcinogen
Tobacco contains nicotine which is known to cause oral cancer, making it a group 1 carcinogen. This is why it’s mandatory for cigarette manufacturers to print warnings on cigarette packs as seen below.
It’s also illegal to advertise cigarettes in TV commercials, social media, and print media. Since pan masala also contains tobacco, the Indian government has issued a ban on advertising these products too. You can read more about all the Indian laws surrounding tobacco here.
All tobacco-containing products like pan masala have already been banned in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu in India. Unfortunately, blanket bans are generally not too effective given that the sale of the banned product just shifts to the black markets where it becomes completely unregulated. If tobacco is the problem, why not just remove tobacco from pan masala? That would certainly be easier than a ban since it will still allow the masses to enjoy their coveted pan masala.
And that’s exactly what pan masala companies did! They removed the tobacco and started advertising the new and improved, completely safe tobacco-free pan masala. The Vimal Pan Masala ad is an example of this. Is pan masala harmful still? If the pan masala companies are behaving themselves, why am I writing this article? Because tobacco is not the only carcinogen in pan masala.
Betel Nut is also a Carcinogen
The betel nut in pan masala does not contain nicotine but it contains nitrosamines which are also carcinogenic. The slaked lime, although not classified as a carcinogen yet, can form tumours in the mouth. A majority of oral cancer cases in India occur due to the consumption of smokeless tobacco like pan masala and oral cancer rates are especially high in the state of Uttar Pradesh in North India due to the widespread consumption of pan.
This is why the IARC has classified pan, both with and without tobacco, as carcinogenic. Although the IARC does not specifically mention pan masala in its list of carcinogens, it goes without saying that pan masala is also a carcinogen given that it contains the same ingredients as pan.
Ingredients in Pan Masala
Pan masala by a popular brand known as Vimal contains the following ingredients – betel nuts, catechu, lime, salt, saffron, permitted spices and flavours, and added flavours. As you can see, it contains betel nuts which is a group 1 carcinogen.
Regulating Pan Masala is Difficult
Now that we know that pan masala is harmful for health, let’s try to understand why so many people still continue to eat it and why it is so difficult to make them stop it.
Lack of Awareness
Most Indians do not know about the harmful effects of the other ingredients in pan and pan masala. They only know that tobacco can cause cancer due to public health initiatives but don’t know that betel nut can also cause cancer. In fact, many people believe that pan masalas are beneficial for mouth freshening, cleaning, and digestion due to their pleasant taste and sweetness. Pan masala companies take advantage of this by removing only tobacco from their pan masala and sell it as tobacco-free pan masala.
Solution – Educate people about the harmful effects of all the other ingredients in pan masala and publicise the fact that the entire mixture is carcinogenic.
Lack of awareness combined with big celebrities like Priyanka Chopra, and even Pierce Brosnan (!) endorsing the product in TV commercials, make it even more difficult to curb the use of pan masala. Here’s one of the ads which had become viral as it had not one but 2 celebrities – Ajay Devgan and Shah Rukh Khan.
However, this ad became the talk of the town not because they were promoting a popular pan masala brand but rather because the company (Vimal) brought together 2 of the most powerful celebrities in Bollywood who had never worked together in a single movie in their entire career.
Solution – As fans what we can do is at least call them out online and that we would prefer that they endorsed healthier products.
India has banned direct and indirect advertisements of tobacco products. But tobacco companies can often circumvent such efforts through surrogate advertisements. ‘Surrogate Advertising’ is duplicating the brand image of one product extensively to promote a banned product of the same brand. The product shown in the advertisement is called the ‘surrogate.’ The surrogate could either resemble the original product or could be a different product altogether from the same brand.
The alcohol industry in India typically uses this a lot, for example, Bacardi does it by advertising music CDs (the surrogate) to promote alcohol (the actual product) but we all know we don’t go to Bacardi to refresh our playlists.
In the case of pan masala advertisements done by a tobacco company, the tobacco-free pan masala is a surrogate for all their tobacco products. Think of it as a person who covers a bag full of explosives with a layer of grapes so that you believe he is just a harmless fruit seller while his real business is selling explosives. In my opinion, the Ajay Devgn and SRK pan masala ad mentioned previously is also an example of a surrogate advertisement.
One study in 2005 found that Pan Parag’s (a popular pan masala brand) annual cost of advertising on just 2 TV channels was 3.8 times greater than its annual sale value. Based on the study’s figures Pan Parag should have gone bankrupt but it didn’t!
Put another way, if you were selling pencils and making only 10 rupees but spending 1000 rupees per day to market your pencils, your pencil business isn’t going to last for a long time. The study suggests that the Pan Parag pan masala advertisements were actually a surrogate for the company’s tobacco products i.e., the company advertises its non-tobacco products but makes money by selling the tobacco products. Additionally, the number of people in India at the time that actually used tobacco-free pan masala was too small to require such heavy ad spends which again suggests that they are a surrogate for their tobacco products.
According to a 2015 study, another common surrogate advertising strategy for tobacco companies is to sponsor Filmfare awards, sports events, and various other events as they help with brand recall and build a positive brand image. Vimal Pan Masala’s ad might also be using a surrogate advertising strategy but unfortunately, I have no proof for this.
I also wanted to understand why it is so difficult for law enforcement authorities to regulate the use of these products. I realised that the laws are heavily focused only on tobacco and NOT on carcinogens in general which is why companies simply remove tobacco but keep the other carcinogens in. Betel nut is in the same category as tobacco in the list of carcinogens, yet tobacco is the only one that receives all the negative publicity.
Solution – Stricter and broader laws that include regulations on carcinogens rather than individual ingredients should be formulated to make it even more difficult for pan masala companies to sell their products. Both tobacco and betel nut are carcinogenic, and we need better strategies than simply banning tobacco-based pan masalas to reduce their usage.
Verdict – Is Pan Masala Harmful?
Pan masalas are harmful for health and can cause oral cancer regardless of whether they contain tobacco or not. And since there is a large amount of evidence to show that pan masala can cause cancer, I propose that the original tagline must be rightfully amended to – “Bolo Zubaan Cancery” (Say your tongue is cancerous).