Chewing betel nuts, even without the commonly used flavorings, has adverse health effects, the Health Promotion Administration (HPA) said on Thursday last week.
Many people erroneously believe that chewing “all-natural” betel nuts is harmless to their health, HPA Cancer Prevention and Control Division Director Lin Li-ju (林莉茹) said.
Arecoline, a nicotinic stimulant that the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies as a Group 1 carcinogen, occurs naturally in betel nuts and cannot be removed before consumption, she said.
Photo: Lo Chi, Taipei Times
Chewing betel nuts also causes abrasions in the mouth, which can trigger the growth of premalignant tissue that precedes cancer, she said.
An elevated cancer risk remains after a person quits chewing betel nuts, Lin added.
An estimated 8,000 cases of oral cancer are reported in Taiwan every year, including 3,000 deaths, HPA Deputy Director-General Chia Shu-li (賈淑麗) said.
About 70 percent of those who develop oral cancer frequently chew betel nuts, Chia added.
Chewing betel nuts is linked to a fivefold increase in the risks of oral, pharynx and esophageal cancer, while the combination of chewing betel nuts, smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol results in a 10-fold increase in the health risks, she said.
Oral cancer is one of the top 10 causes of death in Taiwan, Chia said.
It has a high fatality rate because it is usually discovered late, at stages 3 or 4, she said.
Early discovery improves the chances of survival by 26 percent, she added.
Past and present chewers should seek routine oral cancer screenings, which the HPA offers for free once every two years to betel nut chewers, smokers and indigenous people, as well as everybody aged 18 to 30, she said.
Taiwan Head and Neck Society president Chu Pen-yuan (朱本元) said screenings are a crucial strategy to lower the oral cancer fatality rate, as stage 1 cancer can be treated relatively easily, with a recovery time of as little as one month.
Huang Ming-yu (黃明裕), who chairs the Taiwan Dental Association’s oral health committee, said that cancer is not the only reason that people should not chew betel nuts, a practice that is also linked to increased teeth, masticatory muscle and jaw joint wear.
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