Not so safe: Smokeless tobacco has high levels of carcinogens, says study

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  • February 17, 2019
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Smokeless tobacco, which is sold as a safer alternative to smoking tobacco, has dangerously high levels of carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) and nicotine, a study has found.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota, USA, carried out chemical profiling of eight popular smokeless tobacco brands from Mumbai, and recently published the findings in the scientific journal, Tobacco Regulatory Science.

According to the researchers, levels of tobacco-specific N-nitrosamines (TSNA), known to cause ‘head-and-neck cancers’, in some brands were 41.4 microgram per gram (μg/g) and 19.8 μg/g of their dry weight. Similar products in the US contain much lower levels of TSNA, around 1-3 ug/g, researchers said.

Head-and-neck cancers are a group of cancers that starts in the mouth, nose, throat, larynx, sinuses, or salivary glands. India accounts for 80% of the world’s smokeless tobacco users, making it the leading cause of oral, pancreatic and esophageal cancer in the country.

“These are dangerously high levels of carcinogens. It is shocking that they are marketed as safer alternatives to smoking tobacco,” said Irina Stepanov, associate professor, division of environmental health sciences, school of public health, University of Minnesota, who led the study. “The levels of TSNA varied more than 650-fold across products, highlighting the absence of standardisation of contents.”

Dr PC Gupta, co-author of the study from Healis Institute for Public Health, said, “In India, consumption of smokeless tobacco is socially accepted, unlike in the West. We have a huge variety of products that are easily accessible and inexpensive.” “The findings show the levels are dangerously high and very dangerously high and the user wouldn’t know the difference,” said Dr Samir Khariwala, chief, division of head and neck surgery, University of Minnesota Medical School.

Another worrisome finding, researchers said, was the varied pH levels (-5.14 to 10.82) of the samples. A higher pH means more nicotine will be available to the user than mentioned on the product. “This is a strategy used by manufacturers to get people addicted to their products,” said Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, deputy director at the Tata Memorial Centre. Researchers emphasised the need for surveillance. “The government needs to study the products to understand the cancer risks in users of these products,” Stepanov said.