From Kalyan Ray, DH News Service New Delhi:

The evil of tobacco has penetrated deep inside schools both in the north and south, affecting the sixth-graders the most.

Surveying 11,642 students in 32 schools in Delhi and Chennai, a team of medical researchers from India and US found that almost a quarter of students in sixth-standard use tobacco. They prefer chewing tobacco rather than smoking.

Surprisingly, a comparison with eighth-graders reveals that juniors are more inclined to take up the deadly habit. A group of older students in government schools with well-established smoking habit worries the researchers more because the group can influence others in the class to pick up the deadly habit.

Students in sixth grade were two to four times more likely to use tobacco than those in eighth grade, says the study published recently in the medical journal The Lancet.

“These findings are highly unusual and suggest that this group of teenagers in urban India is just beginning to use tobacco at increased rates,” said Dr K Srinath Reddy, the head of the cardiology department at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences here and the lead author of the study.

Since early use of tobacco predicts greater likelihood of addiction, longer lifetime use and higher rates of lung cancer, these findings are of importance to public health, he said, adding that the new trend of tobacco-use among the sixth-graders might indicate a new wave of increased tobacco use that requires early intervention.

While in Delhi almost five per cent of students currently use any form of tobacco, the number rises to seven per cent in Chennai. Almost one-third of students have parents who smoke and live in a house where somebody else smokes. They are also influenced by films and television characters.

While tobacco continues to be the leading cause of preventive death worldwide, it has been estimated that the percentage of tobacco-related deaths in India will increase to 13.3 by 2020 from the existing level of 1.4 per cent.