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What you need to know about Naswar — Pakistan’s ‘Sasta Nasha’

What you need to know about Naswar — Pakistan’s ‘Sasta Nasha’


Naswar is a form of tobacco, popular in South and Central Asia, but unlike tobacco’s popular smoke producing iteration— cigarettes— Naswar is smokeless.

Naswar is made by mixing together slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), juniper wood ash, indigo colouring agent and sun-dried, air-cured powdered tobacco inside a water filled and cement lined cavity. It also sometimes has cardamom or menthol added in for better flavour. It is so popular in Pakistan that even cricket superstar Shahid Afridi was caught using it during a televised Defence Day celebration. And, just recently, passengers were prohibited from carrying it on the Peshawar BRT (Bus Rapid Transit system) as so many would consume it and spit out the residue that the inside of the bus was beginning to change colours due to the Naswar stains. 

Naswar is consumed by putting it on the floor of the mouth under the tongue, or stuffing it one’s cheek. It is an addictive intoxicant and widely used in Pakistan. The Tobacco Control Cell at the Ministry of Health claims that almost 10 million Pakistanis use Naswar. And, a Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS) conducted in Pakistan, which involved over 8723 youth (5832 were between the ages of 13-15 years), concluded that 5.3% of the Pakistani youth used this smokeless tobacco. 

It is sold in small plastic packets, and there seem to be more than 20 varieties.

Each with a name more interesting than the last, like Double Sher (lion) or Bichoo (scorpions). There are different types of Naswar available in the market, both in terms of its potency and its texture. For example, there is ‘Sakht’ Naswar which is hard, dark in colour and very potent. In contrast to that there is also ‘Naram’ Naswar, which is soft, and has a higher water content that lowers its potency, this type of Naswar is frequently used by elderly enthusiasts of the narcotic. 

Naswar production has been modernised now.

Naswar used to be made in small ad-hoc set ups running out of people’s homes or warehouses, but owing to its popularity and the advent of modern technology its production has also been scaled up and modernised. Prior to the industrialisation of this industry making one batch of Naswar would take around 3 hours as all the ingredients had to be pounded and mixed by hand, this meant that only small batches could be made. Now, however, there are spring based machines available which have made the process much faster and quieter. The machines are also not as expensive as heavy industrial machinery, a quick google search will show websites like Alibaba selling Chinese machines for anywhere between $1000- 3000 (Rs. 1, 58150- 4,78450). Some people are also selling used machines for as low as Rs. 18, 000. These machines can churn out a batch of Naswar in 30 minutes, much faster than the 3 hours it would take without the machine.

Naswar use has been proven to be a high risk factor for cancer.

This popular narcotic is not without its drawbacks though. According to a study published in the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal Oropharyngeal cancer, which is caused by Naswar, is the second most common cancer afflicting Pakistanis, after breast cancer. And males using Naswar are at a 60% higher risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer than females who use Naswar. Naswar also causes COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), which is an obstructive lung disease characterised by long-term breathing problems and progressively worsens overtime.

The government has tried to regulate Naswar, but it has been unable to do so in a way that would discourage its consumption.

Naswar is taxed a negligible amount compared to cigarettes, which themselves are also not taxed enough to make them prohibitively expensive and discourage usage. The 2019 Budget of Pakistan set the tax rate at Rs. 0.50 per KG of Naswar. A packet of Naswar costs Rs. 10 in the market, making it easily affordable for all. If the government is concerned about the ill effects of Naswar usage it needs to tax the industry and run awareness campaigns to educate people of its harmful effects. At present very few people are aware of how harmful it can be because it is culturally acceptable to use Naswar. 

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