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November 30, 2000

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A Hard nut to crack

Taiwan officials are waging war on the national pastime of betel chewing

By Susan Berfield and Laurence Eyton / Taipei

Is it Bad for You?

A MIDDLE-AGED MAN pulls his car up to a streetside booth in downtown Taipei. A girl dressed in a microskirt and halter top gets up off her chair. After a brief transaction the driver speeds off, and the teenager returns to her place. Just down the road the buyer opens the car door, and spews a mouthful of red juice. The scene is as common as it is controversial. Welcome to the Taiwan betel-nut war. On one side is an unpopular government bent on crushing the habit. On the other are three million chewers who just won't say no.

Users consider chewing the nut a (relatively) harmless tradition that the government should accept, or at least ignore. Officials say the custom endangers public health, the environment and moral fiber. And so they have decided to destroy the plantations that are growing on government-protected land (there could be hundreds); shut down the roadside stalls that operate without a license (that is most of them); impose a sin tax on legitimate betel-nut vendors; and mount a public-education campaign against betel-nut use. Ten thousand farmers and vendors marched in Taipei in early June to protest the new policy. The government was unmoved.

Taiwan's aborigines have grown and chewed betel nut for centuries. Settlers from China first picked up the habit about 300 years ago, and for most of that time chewing was limited to a rural working class. But during the past decade the betel nut has come into its own. The amount of land dedicated to the crop has increased 500%; yields have grown eight-fold. Today the industry is worth some $3.6 billion and may employ up to a million people. Chewing betel nut is now considered a distinctly Taiwan custom, which means mainlanders don't do it. For the educated middle class, chewing betel nut, like speaking the Taiwanese dialect, helps create a sense of identity. "It's a Taiwanese tradition, part of our cultural heritage," says Wang Ming-teh, a computer salesman.

Sure. But betel nut is also a cheap high. Most users spend about $3 a day. For that they get a good shot of the stimulant arecoline, which produces a buzz like, say, drinking six cups of coffee. Betel can be taken for the same reason cramming students use amphetamines -- to stay awake. Taxi drivers and truckers consider it a real boon for those long hauls. In workaholic Taiwan, betel nut seems like it should be the least of the government's worries.

Then again, consider the official case. First, the spitting. All that potentially tuberculosis-bearing saliva, and all those unsightly red stains on sidewalks, walls, wherever, is reason enough for some to call betel-nut chewing a public nuisance. Others call it a public-health threat. Certainly the habit is not as benign as many would like to believe. Taiwan's Department of Health says the rate of oral cancer there is 2.6 times higher than in the U.S. and four times that of Japan.

Health advocates have it in for the betel nut, and so do the greens. Environmentalists say that when the trees are planted too close together (as they often are), the dense canopy of foliage makes it hard for other plants to flourish. That in turn means the land is prone to erosion and, in typhoon season, landslides. And some growers illegally plant the trees on slopes, where the potential for trouble is even greater.

The thirsty betel nut tree is also blamed for depleting the island's ground-water supply. The Council of Agriculture reckons that while betel plantations cover only 6.4% of Taiwan's cultivated land, they suck up some 20% of the ground water. The increase in betel-nut plantations has led to a worrying fall in the water table. Agriculture officials call the tree the "No. 1 killer of the island's water resources."

The government is on shakier ground when it criticizes the moral implications of selling the nut. Premier Lien Chan was particularly bothered by the "betel-nut beauties" selling the drug and accused the industry of "fanning licentiousness." Some organizations insist that betel-nut vendors act as fronts for prostitution rings, but there is little hard evidence of this. "People have asked me if there are any 'special services,'" says 19-year-old Huang Mei-li. "I tell them to get lost." Legislator Su Chia-chuan adds: "Sex appeal is used to sell a lot of stuff everywhere. If the girls dressed the way they do to work in a boutique, nobody would care."

The government has genuine concerns, but few in the industry think the new prescriptions will do much good. The Council of Agriculture says authorities should ban betel-nut cultivation altogether. Farmers say the government should help them improve their growing methods, or provide alternative crop schemes (and subsidies). Legislator Su says the government should let people decide for themselves what constitutes an acceptable risk. "But I have no objection to the government regulating the industry better," he says, "perhaps insisting that betel-nut packaging carry a health warning like cigarettes."

Su believes that the government's campaign against the betel nut is "part of their cultural inferiority complex. Taiwanese do it, but Westerners don't, so it must be low-class and disreputable." Betel-nut chewers would say just the opposite. Clearly, Taiwan is going through an identity crisis. And the betel nut, in its own modest way, is either part of the solution or part of the problem.

Is It Bad for You?

Studies link the drug to cancer

WHILE THE OFFICIAL CAMPAIGN against the supposed evils of betel-nut chewing may be something of a moral crusade, there is growing evidence that the popular recreational pastime is not good for one. Some users see betel-nut as a benign alternative to tobacco or alcohol. Not so, say many doctors.

In Taiwan, the oral-cancer rate is almost three times as high as in the U.S., and four times higher than that of Japan. Tsai Ming-shou, of Taipei's Chang Gung Hospital, claims about 80% of his oral-cancer patients are betel-nut chewers. Between 1976 and 1994, oral-cancer rates skyrocketed from one per 100,000 to eight per 100,000 -- and 88% of those diagnosed were regular chewers.

Paan, a preparation of betel nut, lime paste, cardamom and turmeric, is chewed often as a post-dinner stimulant or digestive throughout the subcontinent. South Asians, too, have much higher rates of mouth, throat and esophagus cancer than populations that do not consume betel nuts.

Why? It may be that a high copper content causes oral cancer, according to British medical journal, The Lancet. Betel nuts contain unusually large amounts of the mineral compared to other nuts -- try 10 times the amount found in peanuts.

Testing the saliva of paan users, the British researchers found that those who use betel nuts had about 5 mg of copper released into their mouths -- five times as much as one would absorb each day eating regular vittles. There is no recommended dietary allowance for copper, but only 1.5 mg to 3 mg per day is considered safe. More research is under way to determine if there are other carcinogenic elements in the nuts. And even though results are not conclusive, most in the medical community agree that betel should be classified in the same family as tobacco and alcohol.

-- By Catherine Shepherd

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This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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