Some counties and cities are making progress in weaning people off betel nut, but the habit is still causing thousands of deaths every year in this country, a survey on efforts to prevent betel nut consumption found.
Among the cities and counties with betel nut consumption rates above the national average, Yilan and Chiayi counties and New Taipei City (新北市) led the way in prevention efforts, according to the results of the survey released ahead of Betel Nut Prevention Day, which was yesterday.
Among counties, Penghu has made the greatest improvement in prevention, based on reduced betel nut chewing rates among adults and oral cancer mortality rates.
The leading promoters of prevention in the group with lower than average chewing rates were Greater Taichung, Changhua County and Greater Kaohsiung, while Greater Tainan was found to have made the greatest progress in reducing both chewing and oral cancer mortality.
However, more needs to be done, said Hahn Liang-jiunn (韓良俊), the chairman of the Taiwan Alliance for Areca Nut Control and Oral Cancer Prevention and professor emeritus at National Taiwan University Hospital.
Oral cancer, which in Taiwan is closely connected to the chewing of betel nut, was the fifth most lethal form of cancer in the nation last year, claiming 2,566 lives, Hahn said.
There has been a worrying increase in the number of people with oral cancer, from 6,560 in 2010 to an incidence rate of 40.56 per 100,000 people, he said.
Just as worrying is that more than 38,000 adolescents chew betel nut and could become addicted, raising their risk for oral cancer, he said, adding that schools should do more to promote prevention.
Among counties, Taitung has the highest proportion of betel nut chewing adults with 27.31 percent, followed by Hualien (21.67), Nantou (19.95), Chiayi (19.85), Pingtung (16.6) and Miaoli (16.42), Ministry of Health and Welfare statistics show.
Pingtung County farmers grows 75,000 tonnes of betel nuts a year, making the county the nation’s biggest betel-nut producing area with about 30 percent of the market, the Council of Agriculture says. Nantou, Chiayi and Hualien counties follow in that order, the council says.
The survey evaluated each region — except for Keelung and Lienchiang County — based on 11 indicators that gauged policy, execution and assessment performance in each area.
Aside from its health hazards, betel nut also hurts soil and water conservation efforts, Hahn said, adding that the survey reflected dissatisfaction around Taiwan with the council’s lack of initiative in raising awareness of the crop’s environmental impact.
Cities and counties are unhappy that the council has not done more to help betel nut farmers change crops.
However, the council said that it has prepared a four-year plan to reduce the 1,822 hectares now used to grow betel nut on public land and promote cultivation of other crops on 997 hectares of slopeland and 1,200 hectares of private farmland where betel nut is grown.
It said the plan will be submitted to the Executive Yuan for review and, if passed, the plan is expected to take effect next year.
The weakness of the council’s plan is that in Pingtung County alone 25,000 hectares are dedicated to betel nut cultivation.