A tough Taipei City Government betel nut provision that is guaranteed to rile some blue-collar workers, truck drivers and taxi drivers when it is passed is already getting praise from medical doctors, officials and even vendors.
The "Betel Nut Hygiene Management Autonomy Provision" (
The decree bans betel nut chewing in public places and prohibits city residents under the age of 18 from purchasing and chewing betel nuts.
Under the ordinance, betel nut chewing would be banned in such public places as schools, libraries, swimming pools, and medical institutions. The above mentioned places will display a clear and obvious warning sign which reads "chewing betel nut is forbidden here."
Violators would face a fine of somewhere between NT$1,000 and NT$3,000.
The provision would also ban children under 18 from purchasing and chewing betel nuts. Vendors caught selling betel nut to children under 18 could be fined anywhere between NT$200 and NT$15,000.
Parents or legal guardians who fail to prevent their children under the age of 18 from purchasing and chewing betel nuts could face a fine of between NT$6,000 and NT$10,000. In addition, the measure stipulates that betel nut boxes bear health warning signs as well as a printed warning that they are not to be sold to anyone under the age of 18.
Betel nuts -- favored by Taiwan's manual laborers and truck and taxi drivers who say it keeps them alert over long working days -- are a popular stimulant. The crimson stains from those who chew it can be found on city streets across the island.
The measure, however, does not cover betel nut juice spitting.
The mildly narcotic nut, usually taken with a brick-red or milky-white mix of ash and leaf, is Taiwan's second-largest cash crop.
According to the data released by the health bureau, the production volume of betel nuts in 1991 was about 110,000 tons, and the number climbed up to 160,000 tons in 1997.
Conservation and health risks
Betel nut trees are also blamed for creating water and soil conservation problems. It is also well-known that betel nut chewing is responsible for causing oral cancer, which ranked seventh among Taiwan's top 10 causes of death in 1997 and fifth in 1999, according to the Cancer Society of Taiwan (
A study conducted in 1995 by Ke Ying-chin (葛應欽), a public health professor at Kaohsiung Medical University (高雄醫學院), concluded that betel nut chewing, drinking and smoking combined together posed a lethal threat to the development of oral cancer.
According to the study, a person who drinks increases their chances of developing oral cancer by 10 times; a smoker's chances increase by 18 times, and a betel chewer has 28 times more of a chance of contracting oral cancer.
Those who combine all three -- smoking, drinking and betel nut chewing -- raise their chances by 123 times.
Yeh Chin-chuan (
"If we don't face the problem and try to solve it now, we are going to pay a high price by losing thousands of lives every year," he said.
Yeh added that the country's betel nut chewing population is estimated to be 2.8 million, or about 11 percent of the entire population, and that more young people are developing the habit.
"We know it's impossible for us to ban betel nut chewing, but at least we can educate the public about its potential for harm and further reduce the demand," he said.
The bureau has proposed that related authorities tackle the problem through a number of measures, such as by helping betel nut growers switch to other crops, importing betel nuts, banning betel nut growing on hillsides, controlling the hygiene of betel nut products, and managing the betel nut vending business by requesting operation licenses and levying taxes.
A betel nut retailer for over 10 years, a Mr Chung, who asked to remain anonymous, said profits could vary from season to season.
During the hot season -- from August to March -- he can sell about 1,000 to 2,000 nuts a day, making a daily net profit of between NT$2,000 and NT$3,000, or NT$90,000 a month.
However, during the off season, which runs from April to July, he sells only about 400 to 500 nuts a day. The daily net profit is about NT$500, or NT$15,000 a month.
Like smokers, curiosity drew Chung to begin chewing betel nuts some 10 years ago. Even though he is aware of the risks involved, he still chews about 100 nuts a day.
"The advantages outweigh the disadvantages," he said. "It helps your digestive system and is good for the liver."
Cheng Shih-jung (
"From the medical point of view, the drawbacks outweigh the benefits," he said. "Betel nut chewers not only develop oral cancer but also other oral diseases such as oral submucous fibrosis and teeth attrition." According to Cheng, 95 percent of oral cancer patients have a history of betel nut chewing.
Cheng said he personally embraces the ban but he thinks harsher punishments should be imposed.
"As a betel nut chewer myself, I strongly oppose youngsters developing such a habit at an early age," he said. "Those who sell betel nuts to children should receive severe fines plus jail terms so they know it's not worth it to risk breaking the law at the expense of undermining youngsters' lives." However, Cheng questioned the government's determination to implement the law.
"We've seen it too often that we have a good law passed, but eventually it's not carried out thoroughly," he said.
New Party city councilor Chin Li-fang (
"For example, the government should demand vendors obtain an operation license first ... to make it easy for the police to track down any possible infringements," she said.
DPP city councilor Wang Shih-chien (王世堅), said that he thinks the bylaw is redundant.
"What matters to me is whether the laws are actually implemented, not the number of laws we have altogether," he said. "Besides I doubt the feasibility of the implementation because the police have way too many things to take care of."
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