India is home to over 250 million tobacco users and more than 900,000 people succumb to tobacco-related diseases every year. But the most ominous sign is the number of youths falling prey to the addiction.
Notwithstanding the urban-rural divide, youngsters in rural areas are taking to tobacco as a "hobby" while smoking has become a lifestyle statement in urban areas.
"The situation is really grim in India. As the number of deaths is growing gradually, the country is loosing productive working days, which in return is a loss to the economy," K. Srinath Reddy, head of the cardiology department at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences here, told IANS.
Reddy, honoured by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for his anti-tobacco campaign, said that school students in India were taking to smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco.
Tobacco consumption is quite high among those in the age group of 13 to 15 years. In that group, 3.3 percent students smoke in Goa as against 62.8 percent in Nagaland.
"Ninety-six percent of lung cancers are caused by tobacco consumption. In tobacco smoke there are 3,600 known chemicals, of which 20 can cause cancer," warned Samir Kaul, a senior oncology surgeon at the Indraprastha Apollo Cancer Institute here.
According to a Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS), five percent of students currently use some form of tobacco in India. While every three out of 10 students live in homes where others smoke in their presence, almost 50 percent of the students are exposed to smoke in public places.
Quoting a WHO report, Reddy said that while 1.3 percent of all deaths in India were due to tobacco consumption in 1990, this would rise to 13.2 percent by 2020.
According to WHO, about 4.9 million people die every year from tobacco-related illnesses in the world.
Experts say that if the government wants to spend less on tobacco related diseases, then it must promote "community participation" in its programmes and ban all types of tobacco advertisements.
"Endorsement of tobacco products by celebrities is a great threat as it influences the desire of the general public. Only banning bill boards will not help. The government has to ban all types of advertisements," Kaul said.
Reddy, who is also the coordinator of Hriday, a NGO campaigning against tobacco use, said the use of tobacco causes several diseases ranging from hypertension, cardiovascular problems to cancer.
K.K. Aggarwal, president of the Heart Care Foundation of India (HCFI) and president of the Delhi Medical Council, said over 50 percent of the smokers died prematurely.
Experts also believe that the government should give alternative employment to people in rural India so that they moved away from tobacco cultivation.