By Aashish Mishra Kathmandu, Oct. 18: The data with the Department of Customs show that Nepal imported Rs. 56.9 million worth of Paan Masala in the first two months of the current fiscal year 2020/21. This is a 63 per cent increase from the fiscal year 2019/20 when Paan Masala only worth Rs. 34.9 million was brought into the country and an immensely large increase from the year 2018/19 when Paan Masala worth Rs. 522,000 was imported. Traders say that this year-on-year increase is driven by a mix of rising demand and border tightening. Bhaskar Chourasia, a grocery shop owner who sells Paan Masala, said that consumption of the product had been increasing, especially among the youths. “College students use it as a mouth freshener. Older people chew it as an alternative to Paan while working or after meals,” he said. In Chourasia’s observation, Rajnigandha, Raj Niwas, Paan Parag and Suddha Plus are among the most popular brands of Paan Masala. “They do not have tobacco or nicotine like cigarettes and gutka. Maybe that’s why people are consuming them more,” Chourasia assumed. Another reason import figures are high this year is because more Paan Masala has entered through legal channels. This is according to a Paan Masala and tobacco trader who knows the business extensively but who did not want to be named. As per the figures released by the customs department, Nepal only imports Paan Masala from India. “The easy movement to and from India across the open border allows people to establish channels to bring in Paan Masala without paying customs,” the trader said. “But this year, because of COVID-19, the government has tightened cross-border movement and nearly all unlawful travel to India stopped during the four-month-long lockdown. So, people had to use legitimate means to import Paan Masala which pushed up the figures.” Nevertheless, the demand factor is also there. “More people in their late teens and twenties seem to be picking up the Paan Masala habit,” he said. The increasing imports of Paan Masala, and the correspond increase in consumption, also raise health concerns . While they do not contain tobacco, many Paan Masala products do contain betel nut which has been classified as a group I carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Furthermore, a 2016 study conducted by Tata Hospital in India also revealed that chewing Paan Masala could lead to burning sensations in the mouth, development of pre-cancerous spots and a higher risk of oral cancer. The study also showed that such Masala was highly addictive with withdrawal symptoms appearing in just two hours. In comparison, it takes four hours for withdrawal symptoms to appear for nicotine and six hours for alcohol. Animal studies have also shown that Paan Masala causes tumours in the lungs, stomach, testes and skin. It damages the liver and kidneys and may cause sperm abnormalities. Paan Masala is banned in several Indian states including West Bengal, Bihar, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand.