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Mutagenesis. 2004 Jul;19(4):251-62.

Alert for an epidemic of oral cancer due to use of the betel quid substitutes gutkha and pan masala: a review of agents and causative mechanisms.

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Division of Toxicology and Cancer Risk Factors, German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), Heidelberg, Germany.


In south-east Asia, Taiwan and Papua New Guinea, smoking, alcohol consumption and chewing of betel quid with or without tobacco or areca nut with or without tobacco are the predominant causes of oral cancer. In most areas, betel quid consists of a mixture of areca nut, slaked lime, catechu and several condiments according to taste, wrapped in a betel leaf. Almost all habitual chewers use tobacco with or without the betel quid. In the last few decades, small, attractive and inexpensive sachets of betel quid substitutes have become widely available. Aggressively advertised and marketed, often claimed to be safer products, they are consumed by the very young and old alike, particularly in India, but also among migrant populations from these areas world wide. The product is basically a flavoured and sweetened dry mixture of areca nut, catechu and slaked lime with tobacco (gutkha) or without tobacco (pan masala). These products have been strongly implicated in the recent increase in the incidence of oral submucous fibrosis, especially in the very young, even after a short period of use. This precancerous lesion, which has a high rate of malignant transformation, is extremely debilitating and has no known cure. The use of tobacco with lime, betel quid with tobacco, betel quid without tobacco and areca nut have been classified as carcinogenic to humans. As gutkha and pan masala are mixtures of several of these ingredients, their carcinogenic affect can be surmised. We review evidence that strongly supports causative mechanisms for genotoxicity and carcinogenicity of these substitute products. Although some recent curbs have been put on the manufacture and sale of these products, urgent action is needed to permanently ban gutkha and pan masala, together with the other established oral cancer-causing tobacco products. Further, education to reduce or eliminate home-made preparations needs to be accelerated.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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