Mon, Jan 30, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Health officials take on betel-nut business

LEGAL HIGH Although betel nuts are Taiwan's No. 2 crop after rice, the government feels that the health hazard it presents outweighs any economic benefits

BLOOMBERG

A betel nut seller relaxes in her glass-fronted stall in Taipei on Dec. 19. (Warning: Smoking poses a health hazard.)

PHOTO: MAURICE TSAI, BLOOMBERG NEWS

The Taiwanese government's plan to curb cancer faces tough opposition: about 60,000 women who sit in roadside glass booths, often wearing little more than a bikini, selling the nation's oldest legal drug.

The so-called betel-nut beauties, who are unique to Taiwan, peddle the nation's second-largest crop to 17.5 percent of the adult male population, according to government estimates.

Chewing addictive betel nuts, the seed of the betel palm, increases the risk of mouth cancer, according to the Department of Health. Officials are encouraging farmers to plant alternatives to the US$359 million annual crop, urging about 1.6 million users to quit.

"We aren't very optimistic," said Wu Chien-yuan (吳建遠), a Health Department section chief in Taipei. "We'll focus on preventing people from starting."

Betel, or areca, nuts increase the heart rate and induce a mild sense of excitement, said Hahn Liang-jiunn (韓良俊), an oral and facial surgeon at Taipei's National Taiwan University Hospital.

As many as 400 million people from East Africa to Indonesia chew the seeds and leaves regularly, the British Medical Journal reported in April 2002.

Taiwan's beauties are even featured in tourist guides. Their betel-nut stands are a favorite among long-distance drivers.

"I use betel nuts to mark time and to keep myself alert," said Shen Ting-hui, 28, a truck driver from Taoyuan County, who has been chewing betel nuts for 10 years.

Paying a saleswoman dressed in a blue shirt, white shorts and white boots, Shen said the beauties' visual sales pitch encouraged him to buy from them.

"Of course I want to go to someone good-looking," he said.

While the government's goals are modest -- cutting the number of users by half a percentage point during the next four years -- the beauties are not.

`Government is stupid'

"Our government is stupid," said saleswoman Yu Hui-min, 38, dismissing the notion that betel nuts cause cancer. She wore a brown shirt and miniskirt and red high heels in her neon-lit booth in central Taipei.

"In my home town, betel nuts are a treat for guests," she said.

Betel-nut beauties emerged in the early 1990s as Taiwanese companies sought to cut labor costs by moving factories to China. Many of the beauties are unskilled workers who can't find better jobs because of that shift, said Robin Jai (翟本瑞), dean of social sciences at Nanhua University in Chiayi County.

Taiwan has more than 100,000 betel-nut booths, Jai said. Artist Christian Wu (吳瓊華), who said she interviewed more than 200 saleswomen during a 10-year study, estimates that 60,000 of the booths are run by betel-nut beauties.

"With not much money, I can own my own business and wear beautiful clothes to work," said Lin Hsiao-wei, 35, who wore a leopard-print miniskirt as she dispensed betel nuts in the central town of Toufen (頭份), Miaoli County.

"This is a good job," she said.

Lin, a former garment-factory worker, said she sells NT$8,000 to NT$9,000 of betel nuts a day. Her booth cost about NT$150,000 to set up and her profit margin ranges from 33 percent to 50 percent, she said.

Mouth cancer

People who chew betel nuts, drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes are 123 times more likely to get mouth cancer than those who don't, according to the Department of Health.

Mouth cancer killed about 15 of every 100,000 Taiwanese men in 2003, making it the fourth most lethal form of the disease, department figures show.

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