Sun, Nov 05, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Betel nut use demands a ‘stick’

By Emilio Venezian

The areca nut, also known as betel nut, has some medicinal uses. It is claimed to be useful for leucoderma, leprosy, stoke, cough, fits, worms, anemia, dental and oral hygiene and obesity. It also has ceremonial uses in some cultures. More commonly it is used as a stimulant or a recreational drug. Many Web sites proclaim its virtues and say little or nothing about its possible adverse effects.

As reported in a Taipei Times article, betel nuts are addictive and are classified as a carcinogen (“Government losing battle with betel nut addiction,” Oct. 31, page 4).

It is believed to cause cancer of the jaw, esophagus and salivary glands. The incidence of jaw cancer is about 30 times higher in users than in abstainers, and it is said to be more than 100 times higher in users of betel nuts, tobacco and alcohol than in abstainers.

Betel nut use is a substantial problem for Taiwan at several levels. The National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA) has stated that “oral, salivary gland and jaw bone diseases” are the second-most expensive set of diseases in Taiwan, costing NT$41.3 billion (US$1.37 billion) last year — only kidney diseases are more expensive.

That amounts to an annual cost of about NT$1,800 per person, so it is a concern from an economic view.

Beyond the health issue, there are three other potential problems arising from Taiwanese betel nut use.

The first problem is ecological: Betel nut cultivation requires meticulous weeding of the undergrowth. Since these farms are often on steep mountainsides, deforestation and frequent weeding markedly increase the risk of mudslides after heavy rains or typhoons.

The second one is environmental: The multitude of booths that sell the product use very bright LED lights to attract customers, contributing to light pollution.

The third is safety-related: Heavy users of betel nut are believed to include truck and bus drivers and workers who have to move heavy loads. If chewing a large number of betel nuts per day affects mental alertness, then that might affect driving and working skills related to safety.

In addition, the bright lights and betel nut girls used to attract customers to retail outlets might distract drivers from seeing traffic lights and hazards.

As the Taipei Times article says, the government has offered a subsidy of as much as NT$250,000 per hectare to persuade betel nut farmers to convert to other crops, but that has resulted in a meager conversion rate.

Only 435 hectares out of 42,940 hectares dedicated to betel nut cultivation have been switched to other crops since the subsidy program was initiated in 2014.

No data could be found on how many hectares have been deforested or converted from other uses to start new betel nut farms; it is even possible that the subsidy has led to the creation of more new farmland than the 435 hectares lost.

The carrot approach does not seem to be working. Perhaps Taiwan should consider using a stick rather than a carrot.

Taxes and other measures on tobacco have been effective in curbing smoking, both in Taiwan and in other nations, and have led to a leveling and later decline in the incidence of lung cancer.

Taiwan has increased the tax on cigarettes from NT$11.8 per pack to NT$31.8 per pack, signaling that taxation is succeeding. The tax is about 30 percent of the cost of a pack of 20 cigarettes.

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