When inflation rises in Pakistan, the price of everything goes up, but not naswar. Naswar, or smokeless tobacco, isn’t regulated in the country and therefore isn’t subject to price hikes.
“Naswar ghareeb ka nasha hai [Naswar is the poor man’s drug],” said Atiqullah, who has been selling naswar for 30 years in Sanghar. “The rich smoke cigarettes and only the poor turn to naswar. Despite inflation, the price of naswar doesn’t go up. Naswar is the only cheap thing now,” he said.
The price of tobacco and other items has gone up recently but Naswar’s rates have stayed the same for two years. This is because it is unregulated and doesn’t fall in the tax net.
Naswar is made from tobacco leaves, calcium oxide and wood ash and it’s addictive. Many people become addicted when they’re teenagers.
A pinch of naswar is stored under the tongue, lower lip or in the cheek for extended periods of time. Some people even sniff it.
In March 2019, Pakistan’s inflation rate touched a five-year high of 9.41% and tobacco products went up by 12%. A lot of people switched to naswar as a result.
Depending on the quality, a packet of naswar is sold for between Rs7 and Rs10. And a single packet can get you through the day.
Atiqullah’s store is filled with naswar wrapped up in plastic packets with trademarked logos, usually featuring wildlife.
Be it Double Sher (lion), Black Cobra, Bichoo (scorpion), Black Cat, Teetar (partridge), Morr (peacock) or more unique varieties like Special or Bombard that come in black, dark brown and yellow colours, his store has it all.
“There are around 20 types of naswar available. The product varies based on high and low intoxication levels,” explained Atiqullah.
“I prefer the ‘Tractor’ brand because of the high intoxication,” said a customer named Lakhano. Another customer, Karam Ali, who works in Nagarparkar as a laborer said the Special brand naswar helps him get through the day. “But I cannot leave naswar,” he said.
According to a 2011 study, around 15% of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s population used naswar at the time.
But according to Amanat Ali, another naswar dealer, gone are the days when naswar was an ethnic symbol linked exclusively to Pakhtuns. With other forms of tobacco becoming more expensive, naswar has become popular with other communities like Sindhis, Punjabis and Urdu-speakers as well, he said.
It is well documented that naswar first began from America and in 17th century became common in Western Europe. After cigarette smoking was banned in Western Europe, people turned to naswar.
Apart from Pakistan, powdered tobacco is also consumed in other South Asian and Central Asian countries like Afghanistan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Naswar is legal in Pakistan and the tobacco used in it is grown in some parts of Punjab and Balochistan. It also it comes from Afghanistan.
But it isn’t entirely safe. It has high pH levels and contains unionized nicotine and carcinogenic tobacco-specific N-nitrosamines (TSNAs), which are bad for your oral and general health. Medical experts say the effects of naswar are worse than those caused by smoking.
Zulfiqar Kunbhar is a Karachi-based environment journalist. He tweets @ZulfiqarKunbhar