A team of researchers from the CSIR-Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (CIMAP) has successfully lowered the nicotine content in the Petit Havana Tobacco plant by 40-50 per cent. They are hoping to reduce it by another 10 per cent and apply it to commercial varieties as well. This could potentially benefit millions of smokers who want to quit but find it hard to do so.
The scientists achieved this feat by discovering a biosynthetic pathway for nicotine in the root of the tobacco plant, which is responsible for synthesising nicotine and transporting it to the leaves used in cigarettes. By regulating or blocking this pathway, they were able to alter the amount of nicotine being transported to the leaves.
How does nicotine affect smokers?
Nicotine is the main addictive substance in tobacco products. It stimulates the release of dopamine, a chemical that makes people feel good, in the brain. This creates a cycle of dependence and craving that is hard to break.
Nicotine also affects the cardiovascular system, increasing blood pressure and heart rate. It can also cause constriction of blood vessels, reducing blood flow and oxygen supply to vital organs. Nicotine can also impair the immune system, making smokers more prone to infections and diseases.
What are the benefits of low-nicotine tobacco?
Low-nicotine tobacco could help smokers reduce their dependence on nicotine and make it easier for them to quit. It could also lower the health risks associated with smoking, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
According to Dr Vikrant Mohanty, head of the National Resource Centre for Oral Health and Tobacco Cessation, New Delhi, “We have one of the highest numbers of tobacco users in the world, but we also have one of the highest percentages of people who want to stop. If we are to bring down the burden of tobacco-induced diseases, then we must focus on this huge group of people who have the willingness but not the means to quit.”
What are the challenges of low-nicotine tobacco?
Low-nicotine tobacco is not a magic bullet that can solve the problem of tobacco addiction. It still contains thousands of other harmful chemicals that can cause damage to various organs and tissues. It also does not address the psychological and social aspects of smoking, such as stress, peer pressure, habit, and pleasure.
Moreover, low-nicotine tobacco may not be acceptable to all smokers, who may prefer the taste and sensation of regular cigarettes. Some smokers may also compensate for the lower nicotine levels by smoking more cigarettes or inhaling more deeply, which could negate the benefits of low-nicotine tobacco.
Therefore, low-nicotine tobacco should be seen as a possible aid for quitting smoking, not as a substitute for smoking. Smokers who want to quit should also seek professional help and use other methods such as counselling, medication, nicotine replacement therapy, and behavioural therapy.
India’s fight against tobacco
India is one of the largest consumers and producers of tobacco in the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 7 per cent of all deaths (around 1.2 million per year) in India are attributable to tobacco, and there are losses to the tune of $27.5 billion (Rs 2.28 lakh crore) a year due to diseases related to tobacco use.
The most common and concerning of these diseases is cancer, with tobacco smoke being known to cause over 27 per cent of all cancers and 90 per cent of all oral cancers in India. Dr Shishir Shetty, oncologist at Apollo Hospitals, Navi Mumbai, says, “Deeper lung smoke over years can cause changes in cells. It is worrying that the age at which many cancers are detected is lower today because tobacco use is also starting at a younger age.”
The government has taken several measures to curb tobacco use in India, such as:
- Banning smoking in public places
- Prohibiting advertisement and promotion of tobacco products
- Mandating pictorial health warnings on 85 per cent of cigarette packs
- Imposing high taxes on tobacco products
- Implementing the National Tobacco Control Programme
- Launching mass media campaigns and awareness programmes
These efforts have had an impact, with WHO predicting that India’s tobacco use will fall by about a third by 2025. There has already been a reduction of about 8.1 million smokers in the past decade in the country.
However, there is still a long way to go before India can achieve a tobacco-free status. There are still over 267 million tobacco users in India, including 100 million smokers. There are also challenges such as low awareness, weak enforcement, illicit trade, and industry interference.
The discovery of low-nicotine tobacco could be another step towards reducing the harm caused by tobacco, but it is not a panacea. Smokers who want to quit should seek help from qualified professionals and use proven methods to overcome their addiction. As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure.