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For India's street kids, smoking is path to drugs

New Delhi - Govind is a 12-year old runaway who came to Delhi three weeks ago from a small village in central India.

He sleeps near a goat market in the old town where street kids and the children of rickshaw drivers dwell. He earns a few rupees as a dhaba worker, cleaning cups for an older teenager who sells milky tea and hot dal (lentils).

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Along with other changes, Govind is now smoking for the first time.

On any given day, he goes to the train station where street kids crowd onto empty passenger cars, looking for unfinished drinks, food, and cigarette butts.

That is the pattern among the 11 to 40 million children in India who live parentless on the streets of cities like Bombay, Calcutta, and Delhi. This is the group where smoking rates are highest by far.

A 1996 UNDCP report on India's street children, one of the few such studies in the last decade, states a high level of tobacco-related abuse among children between five and 10 years of age, particularly among boys.

By age 8 to 14, the report states, street children "graduate" to alcohol, marijuana, and heroin, which is now a regular drug in cities.

OFFICIALS in the Welfare Ministry and nongovernmental organizations watch tobacco use since in South Asia it is considered an entry-level drug.

"I've counseled hard-drug users for 15 years and I don't know any who don't smoke," says Ashita Mittal, a program officer with the United Nations Drug Control Program in Delhi. "It's a gateway substance."

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The smoking takes place despite the fact smoking is a social taboo in South Asia. Smoking in front of elders is a sign of disrespect.

Even Govind drops his cigarette when reporters arrive, though one reason is also because he doesn't want to get picked up by volunteer social workers, who identify drug users by their smoking habits.

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