Ministers urged to curb sale of tobacco `sweets'

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The Independent Online
ADDICTIVE CHEWING tobacco "sweets" are being sold in Britain to children as young as 12, an MP is expected to warn today. Labour MP Claire Ward will call on the Government to clampdown on the products during a Commons adjournment debate.

Perfumed with flavours such as chocolate, cheap and brightly packaged for a young market, the tobacco "sweets" usually contain the equally addictive betel nut and, in some cases, other dangerous substances such as lead and silver.

Imported from the Indian sub-continent, the sweet chewing tobacco has found favour among young Asians and is spreading through school playgrounds.

Even more than smoking, the chewing of tobacco is known to cause oral cancer. Doctors are already reporting a rise in instances of pre-cancerous mouth lesions in young children in this country.

Ms Ward said she would be calling on the Government to clamp down on its import and sale, warning that the UK could face a serious problem if nothing is done.

She said: "We are going to face very large NHS bills as well as all the associated social and personal costs. The Government has got to realise what a problem it is and put some money into doing some research."

Dr Khalid Anees, who is treating a 12-year-old girl for a pre-cancerous condition which he suspects may have been caused by the habit, said: "We thought it [chewing tobacco] would die out with the older generation but a new generation has acquired a taste. It is cynically marketed at children. And we now have evidence of it spreading across into the indigenous population of this country. We could be left with an epidemic if it is not stopped."

There are 2,000 new cases of oral cancer each year in Britain. In 1997, the illness killed 1,685 people. Dr Anees, who works and lectures at University College's Eastman Dental Institute, London, said: "We are seeing more and more of these kind of sweets in this country. Every month there is an increase in the number of products being imported. They are very addictive and dangerous. Children really don't know what is inside them."

Having already raised the matter in writing with Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, as well as Yvette Cooper, the Public Health minister, Ms Ward will press for a ban on imports targeted at children as well as stronger guidelines and enforcement of tobacco laws.

Her views are backed by the British Dental Health Foundation and the World Health Organisation (WHO). Professor Raman Bedi, director of the WHO collaborating centre for oral health in London has launched Stock (Stop Oral Cancer in Kids) to highlight and fund research into the problem.

The "pan" leaf has been chewed for generations on the Indian sub-continent, often with "gutkha' - a sweetened tobacco mixture with betel nut - wrapped inside. Doctors blame the habit for a high incidence of oral cancer - almost five times the number of cases here.

"Children as young as 12 have been diagnosed with pre-cancerous lesions in the mouth due to gutkha use in the Indian sub-continent. Tens of thousands of children visit the Indian sub-continent from the UK each year where they may pick up the gutkha habit then continue it when they return home," said Professor Bedi.

Trading standards officers in Birmingham recently found that eight out of 11 shops were willing to sell the products to children under 16.