Betel Addiction Trumps Burma’s Anti-Tobacco Campaign

By San Yamin Aung 29 May 2014

RANGOON — An anti-tobacco campaign in Burma has had little effect, campaigners say, as the popularity of chewing betel nut continues to grow.

“Of anywhere in Southeast Asia, Burma has the most people consuming betel quid with tobacco. More than 51 percent of the population here chews it with tobacco,” Dr. Tint Tint Kyi, a specialist at Insein General Hospital, said at a forum in Rangoon ahead of World No Tobacco Day on Saturday.

That’s up from about 25 percent of the country’s population five years ago and 10 percent of the population a decade ago, she said.

Betel quid, commonly known as betel nut, consists of areca nuts wrapped in betel leaf and coated with lime. Tobacco and spices are added upon preference.

Street stalls throughout Burma sell the addictive nut, which stains the teeth of chewers a dark red color as it gives them a boost much like a cup of coffee.

Dr. Khin Maung Lwin, a former director at the Ministry of Health, said anti-tobacco awareness campaigns needed to reach a bigger audience.

“Most attendees at our talks are nonsmokers and people who don’t chew betel,” he said at the forum in Rangoon. “As long as we are only raising awareness among people who don’t use tobacco, there will be no progress.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), someone dies every six seconds around the world from tobacco use, while tobacco kills nearly 6 million people each year. Of those, more than 600,000 people are nonsmokers who have been exposed to second-hand smoke.

“Many people are smoking in tobacco-free public places,” Tint Tint Kyi said.

Burma’s 2006 tobacco control law bans smoking and chewing betel nut in tobacco-free places such as schools, hospitals and sports facilities.

“If we collect fines from tobacco users in tobacco-free places, people will follow the rules,” said Khin Maung Chin, a member of the Myanmar Motion Picture Organization who attended the forum.

About 80 people, including students, nurses and staff from the Ministry of Health and health services companies, attended the forum on Wednesday at the National Health Museum.