Updated: February 12, 2021 4:22:12 am
RESEARCHERS from the Oral Health Sciences Centre, PGI MER, Chandigarh recently published a study on the online availability of herbal cigarettes/bidis, in an international peer-review journal — Tobacco Control.
This study is one of the pioneering researches on herbal smoking products and is rapidly gaining the attention of researchers and policymakers globally.
The research has highlighted the increased popularity of these products, especially among the youth. These products are being marketed as health-promoting products, which is a matter of great concern, says Prof Krishan Gauba, Head, OHSC-PGIMER.
The research states that cheap herbal cigarettes and bidis, a blend of certain herbs rolled in tendu leaves–are widely available online and often marketed as a safer and healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes, along with various other unverified ‘health’ claims.
The fact is that though these products do not contain any nicotine or tobacco, but have other potentially harmful substances, and may act as a gateway product to conventional tobacco products, says Dr Arpit Gupta, a faculty from PGIMER. He strongly feels that the sale and marketing of these products must be regulated urgently.
Herbal cigarettes and bidis are widely available in India, Asia, North America, Australia and Europe. Because of their rising popularity among young people worldwide, the researchers wanted to find out the mode of availability and marketing.
In this study, Google, Yahoo and Bing search engines were used to find retail web pages offering herbal smoking products, including cigarettes and bidis. Out of the initial 1044 records retrieved, 73 retail web pages were included in the final analysis which revealed 24 brands, produced by 18 manufacturers offering 189 different flavours in packs of 5 to 20 sticks.
Nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of the webpages sold herbal cigarettes; 12 per cent sold herbal bidis; and 26 per cent sold herbal shisha/hookah. To the researchers’ surprise most of these products were sold under the ‘healthcare’ category. Forty-three websites (59 per cent) spelt out health benefits in their product descriptions, of which 41 per cent claimed the benefits to be based on complementary medicine; the remainder were manufacturers’ own claims. Claims included use as a smoking cessation aid (40 per cent); a stress reliever (19 per cent); and to ease respiratory symptoms, including Covid-19 (15 per cent).
Other claims included use as a mood enhancer; a treatment for jet lag; a concentration or energy booster; and digestive aid.
Only 16 per cent of the webpages clarified that the claims ‘had not been evaluated by FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) or any other regulatory authority. Fewer than 3 per cent cautioned: ‘Any type of smoking is injurious to health.’ And none of the retail web pages listed the possible harmful effects associated with smoking these products. Two-thirds (67 per cent of the included retail web pages didn’t require any proof of age before purchase, and just 22 per cent stated, ‘Not to be sold to minors.’
The average customer rating was 3.61 out of a maximum of 5. The pack price (20 sticks) as per the researchers ranges from Rs 51 to Rs 1,830.
According to Prof. Ashima Goyal, this study has reported the vast availability of herbal smoking products in various flavours at affordable prices in the e-retail market and unfortunately these are being sold as a safer alternative to tobacco smoking without any age restriction/verification and on the pretext of being nicotine-free. The study also emphasises that although touted as a healthy alternative to conventional cigarettes, these still contain potentially harmful chemicals and the exhaled carbon monoxide may affect the people in immediate vicinity.
While public health policy and legislation have rightly focused on tobacco and nicotine addiction, herbal products have been overlooked, point out the researchers. This highlights the urgent need to focus on all kinds of smoking products, including tobacco-free products, prioritizing public health and creating a smoke-free world in the real sense.
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