47% of people in Meghalaya use tobacco: James Sangma

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Health Minister James Sangma on Friday said Meghalaya has high tobacco related cancer cases in the country, as  per the Global Adult Tobacco Survey(GATS 2016-17), 47% of people in Meghalaya use tobacco, as compared to the national average of 28.4%.

While launching the Northeast India Association of Surgical Oncology(NASO), which is a newly formed association of cancer surgeons of Northeast India, Sangma said, “Meghalaya tops the list of cancers which are known to be caused by tobacco. It is sad to note that 70.4% of cancers in men and 46.5% of cancers in women of East Khasi Hills District are preventable.”

“These are all tobacco-related cancers and by shunning tobacco, we would be left with fewer cancers to treat. As per the Global Adult Tobacco Survey(GATS 2016-17), 47% of people in Meghalaya use tobacco, as compared to the national average of 28.4%. Tobacco, in any form, is the most important cause of cancer,” the Health Minister added.

However, he said the state in the recent times has shown the way in cancer prevention. The Health and Education Ministries of Meghalaya have implemented the ‘Tobacco Free Educational Institution’(ToFEI) program to curb use of Tobacco by school students. This has won appreciation for effective implementation. This was revealed by James Sangma, Health Minister of Meghalaya, while speaking at the Inaugural function of the Midterm conference of the Indian Association of Surgical Oncology(IASO) which was held at the State Convention Centre, Shillong.

The three days conference is the first time that a major conference of the IASO is being held in Northeast India, and over 300 cancer surgeons participated in this conference. IASO is the national association for cancer surgeons in the country.

Dr. Caleb Harris, who is the organising secretary of the conference and the secretary of NASO, thanked the minister for his efforts in curbing tobacco use in the state and said that is much more important that the role played by cancer surgeons in treating cancer, as many lives are saved by shunning tobacco. Dr. Rajendra Toprani, President of IASO and a leading Head Neck Cancer Surgeon from Ahmedabad, said that Meghalaya tops the country in the incidence of Esophageal(food pipe) cancer, with more than ten times the national average.

Dr. Nalin Mehta, Director, NEIGRIHMS, assured the support of the institute in cancer control and also said that a study to understand the reason for high esophageal cancer in Meghalaya is underway in NEIGRIHMS, involving the Civil Hospital, Shillong too.

The conference saw top cancer surgeons from across the country coming over to Shillong and sharing their knowledge and experiences on the theme ‘skills sets in surgical oncology’. Also, over 175 research papers were presented during this conference.

The minister also explained in detail about the Tobacco Free Educational Institutions (ToFEI)project, as part of which, as per Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India’s Revised Guidelines issued in 2019, every educational institution has to do 11 anti-tobacco activities every academic year for a Scorecard of 100 marks. In the last one year Meghalaya has undertaken this program in more than 10,000 schools which have done more than 51,000 activities to date. These schools involve about 47,000 teachers and 6.8 lac students whose attitude towards tobacco has now started to change. It will take soe time for behaviour change to happen but a good start has been made.

In November 2021, the Health Department conducted a Tobacco Teachers Survey to determine the knowledge & attitude of our teachers. 3986 teachers responded in the largest such survey every done giving us valuable insights about the interventions needed. A very positive finding was that 99% of teachers felt that students should not use tobacco and 91% wanted it banned. A committed force of teachers will surely work to protect our children from the influence of tobacco.

Sale of tobacco products is banned within 100 yards of schools under COTPA (the Cigarettes & Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003) and as part of the ToFEI program the Health Department has been collecting data from schools about shops violating this law near their schools. Till date, data from more than 7,800 schools across the State has been collected. In July 2021, we found that an alarming 44% of schools reported violations. Working closely with the Education Department, the District Administration and the Police Department, till January 2022, this percentage had been reduced to 31%. This is considered a significant achievement because all over the Country it has been particularly difficult to stop sales near schools. Since 2003, more than 6 High Court orders have asked Governments to stop such sale. Action is taken and sale is reduced for some time, only to re-start. The Meghalaya model of close cooperation between various Departments would be a first in the Country to systemically reduce sales near schools.

The function ended with cultural programs highlighting the song and dances of the state.