x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Tongue cancer kills actor after anti-tobacco role

Shafique Sheikh, the minor Bollywood actor who has died of cancer after years of chewing tobacco, had taken a stand against the habit in his last film.

Gutkha, or chewing tobacco, is blamed for a high cancer rate among young Indians.
Gutkha, or chewing tobacco, is blamed for a high cancer rate among young Indians.

Shafique Sheikh was not a big name in the Indian film industry and few will have heard of him outside Malegaon, his hometown in the western state of Maharashtra.

But with cruel irony, his death at the age of 25 last week from tongue cancer - apparently the result of a heavy chewing tobacco habit since childhood - just a week after the premiere of his new film, has brought him posthumous fame.

In Ye Hai Malegaon Ka Superman (This is Malegaon Superman), Sheikh plays a spoof version of the superhero, fighting an evil "gutkha king" who wants to flood the town with the highly addictive chewing tobacco.

"In the movie he's fighting against smokeless tobacco as Superman but in real life he himself has succumbed to the habit," said his doctor, Pankaj Chaturvedi, a head and neck cancer specialist at Mumbai's Tata Memorial Hospital.

Sheikh's story is depressingly familiar for Indian cancer specialists, increasingly alarmed at a rise in tobacco use and in oral cancer rates among young people. The slightly built former textile worker first started using gutkha tobacco mix at the age of eight and was consuming between 30 and 40 packets a day. At 18 he was diagnosed with oral sub-mucous fibrosis, which affects the jaw.

The condition later developed into cancer. Eventually he had most of his tongue and the glands from both sides of his neck removed and radiotherapy to stop the disease spreading.

Such patients face almost a 50 per cent chance of the disease returning, which is what happened to Sheikh within six months, according to his doctor.

Ready-made packets of gutkhahave become popular in recent years, with sachets selling for as little as two rupees (Dh0.16). And although it is banned in the UAE, health authorities have reported a rise in illegal sales by smaller, neighbourhood grocers.

Concern about gutkha comes because of its use by people of all ages, particularly children, and its being advertised as tobacco-free or as a breath freshener.

Gutkha, paan and beedis - cheap, hand-rolled tobacco leaves - account for 85 per cent of India's tobacco market.

"We're seeing a real surge in various oral cancers among young people, who are getting addicted," said Chaturvedi. "Normally we wouldn't have such cancers in youth. About 30 per cent are below 35 years of age. That means they're starting at the age of 12 and developing cancers after 10 years' consumption."

"Sheikh was so frustrated with the whole gutkha issue," Chaturvedi adds. "He didn't want his children to suffer the same fate ... But through his movie, he wants the message to be spread."