Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Taiwan's War on Betel-nut and Betel Palms

I'm starting to wonder if the people who are attacking betel nut usage and betel palm growing have a hidden agenda. Here's an issue that is being attacked from every possible angle.

First, just how strong is the link between cancer and the actual betel nut (just the nut)?

"Although a substantial proportion of the cancers are caused by the tobacco rather than the betel nut and leaves in the quid, according to WHO, betel chewing without tobacco also leads to cancer of the mouth. A British study reported in 2004 has tried to establish that there is a genetic aspect to this. Betel-nut chewers with faulty gene have higher risk of mouth cancer."

"When done regularly, betel chewing is considered likely to have harmful effects on health including cancers of the stomach and mouth and damage to gums. Whether this is due to, or exacerbated by, lime being used in betel preparations and the addition of tobacco (in the case of gutka) or other impurities is open to question. It is well known in betel consuming countries that various items, such as opiates and tobacco, can be added to betel preparations to increase the addictive properties, and thus to bolster sales."

"Very few studies exist of the use of a "pure" paan preparation: betel nut, betel leaf, and lime, and fewer studies exist of betel nut alone."

"Medical literature at this stage (even though highly anecdotal) seems to indicate that regular, addiction-driven use (for example, eight pinches a day) of betel nut in the preparations popular in India, Pakistan, New Guinea, and Taiwan can be harmful. Regarding the preparation methods used in Vietnam and Guam, and regarding occasional usage, there seems to be no strong indication one way or another." (WIKI)

So what's going on here? How strong is the evidence? Is what we're seeing here just a campaign to try and wipe out what some Taiwanese feel is an embarrassment to Taiwan or a real, full-blown medical problem here? Remember, "Betel chewing is a tradition which dates back thousands of years". Why wipe it out all of a sudden? Have the civilized and the professional had enough with this embarrassing, backward 1000 year old tradition.

As Chang Ming-hsien, chairman of the Kaohsiung Betel Nut Processing and Packaging Association feels...
'...there are too many moral judgments flying around. "People who use betel nut stands as a front for prostitution or drugs make up only a small proportion of us," he maintains. "If you say betel nuts cause cancer, make it clear which part of the nut actually does it. We can improve on that [by processing the nuts or changing the lime-paste formula]. Actually, I know a lot of old folk who love to chew betel nut and who've lived to be ninety years old, quite healthy. When their teeth fall out, they even grind betel nuts into powder. How do you explain that? If you say betel palms threaten the environment, what have you got to say about those massive golf courses built on slope land? Are they legal because golf players are all rich people and political VIPs, while betel nut chewers are blue-collar?" '


Some consider it an attack on being Taiwanese:
' "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. '

There is also the often repeated link between betelnut palm's and their shallow roots and horrific landslides that occur in Taiwan. But is this actually so?

"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."

Or could it be that Taiwan is just a crumbly place with landslides happening all the times for a variety of reasons, not excluding over development on a massive scale. Note, most of the landslides shown on TV remarkably show mostly rock and rubble and little or no trees. Why is that?

Legislator Su Chia-chuan,
[...]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."


Could it be that 'high-class' Taiwanese consider betel-nut culture something for poor countries in South East Asia to have but not their high tech, modern silicon island nation?

It is also interesting to note that these comments were made in 1997 when the KMT government was still in power. We know that the current pro-Taiwan government has maintained the anti-betel policy.

Look, I'm not advocating that betel-nut is completely healthy or that betel palms growing just anywhere is fine. I'm just suggesting that there quite likely are underlying reasons for eliminating betel-nut culture that are not completely obvious. This impression becomes even clearer when you consider the addition of the campaign against the morality of betel-nut girls, which officials are up in arms about, into the overall anti betel war.

In the end, the reason for getting rid of the drug of preference of the 'red-lipped people' (this term even seems pejorative!) may have more to do with prudish culture than with health or the environment or morality. So don't be fooled by all the popular media issues (that sell papers and keep viewers glued) and government propaganda.

Some other good reads:
A very detailed account of chewing or sucking the juice of betel-nut plus its effects, its appeal and health concerns related to it.

In defence of the betel-nut, kind of.

PS. BTW, not every issue is as one-sided as it may seem. I strongly recommend to stop always being spoon fed by the news media and the government. If you are interested in how this can happen, download this... mininova It's another very one-sided issue (which I believe something should still be done about) but the documentary will make you think about what you are being told and how it is packaged.
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