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Head and neck cancers kill in India: Tobacco to blame?

Smoking increases risk of developing multiple cancers, including head and neck cancer.
Smoking significantly increases the risk of head and neck cancer.

Most of the world’s head and neck cancer patients are from India, recent data suggests.

Experts suggest that high rates of tobacco use, particularly among men, are behind the grim statistic that 57.5 percent of the world’s head and neck cancer patients reside in India. What’s worse, the number of cases in the country are projected to double by 2030.

Head and neck cancer is a broad term which includes cancers of the mouth and throat. Oral cancer is the most common form of head and neck cancer, accounting for 80,000 cases each year.

Head and neck cancers are a significant public threat in India, accounting for thirty percent of the country’s burden. By contrast, in developed nations, head and neck cancers account for between four and five percent of the cancer burden.

With many more head and neck cancer cases on the way for India, it is important to recognise both their risk factors so that action can be taken to mitigate the burden going forward.

“57.5 percent of the world’s head and neck cancer patients reside in India. What’s worse, the number of cases in the country are projected to double by 2030.”

Alcohol and tobacco use cause around 75 percent of cases of head and neck cancer, according to the US-based National Cancer Institute. Poor oral hygiene, vitamin A and B deficiency, infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), and a weak immune system are other risk factors.

Tobacco use, in particular, is a well-documented public health concern for India. It causes 932,600 deaths every year, representing 12.5 percent of all deaths in the country in 2016.

The good news is that tobacco use is falling, especially among young people. This can be attributed to policies enacted by the Indian government and the work of NGOs and public health activists.

Nonetheless, more than 103 million Indian adults use tobacco on a daily basis.  This comes at substantial cost, both to public health and to the economy. The total cost of tobacco to India is estimated at almost 27 billion USD when considering healthcare costs and lost productivity.

India’s high burden of head and neck cancer is just one of the many ways that tobacco takes its toll on the health of the country. Tobacco use is a risk factor for a plethora of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), ranging from respiratory illnesses to heart disease to several types of cancer – not only of the head and neck, but also of the lungs, kidney and oesophagus, among others.

As the rate is projected to increase sharply in the coming years, the need is for India to scale up its anti-tobacco efforts. This should incorporate stricter regulations and awareness campaigns, so that Indians can take the necessary preventative measures to minimise their risk of contracting head and neck cancers – and other tobacco-related illnesses – in the first instance.

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