Lawmakers Push for Betel Nut Awareness Campaign

By Nobel Zaw 24 February 2015

RANGOON — Burma’s Lower House of Parliament on Tuesday chewed over a proposal about how to reduce the consumption of betel nut, a mild street-side stimulant known for leaving a blood-red trail on the lips of users and the sidewalks they travel.

Parliamentarian Phone Myint Aung said the habit should be reined in because of health risks and cosmetic damage to streets and vehicles, arguing that many users are still unaware of effects of the product. In rural areas, he said, it is still common for villagers to start chewing betel nut at a very young age and it is traditionally offered as a greeting to houseguests.

The lawmaker suggested a public awareness campaign to be carried out by the Ministry of Health, which would consist of distributing signage and pamphlets about the negative effects of betel nut, which is also locally referred to as quid.

“Quid is a problem in Myanmar [Burma], but it cannot be solved now. It will take a generation,” Phone Myint Aung told The Irrawaddy. “I’m not trying to stop people from chewing it, but we need to distribute information about health impacts at shops where betel nut is sold.”

Phone Myint Aung said that beyond negative health impacts—the World Health Organization has found that the drug is linked to several types of cancer, whether or not it is combined with tobacco—the habit is both unsanitary and unbecoming.

Betel nut, or areca nut, is served chopped up and wrapped in a leaf, often slathered with slaked lime and spiked with tobacco to taste. Users chew the packet and spit out deep red saliva, often seen on Burma’s sidewalks, taxi cabs, even in pagodas. Phone Myint Aung said that he won’t even pull up next to a city bus, worried that he might be doused by passengers spitting out the windows.

“Do Not Throw Waste Undisciplined,” and “Do Not Spit Saliva Undisciplined,” are among the phrases being printed out on signboards and handed out to vendors in Mandalay, according to Deputy Health Minister Win Myint. He said the ministry has committed to carry out similar efforts in Naypyidaw and elsewhere.

Some betel chewers agreed that people should be made more aware of impacts, but said the habit would be difficult to break for those who are already hooked.

“Educating people on the disadvantages is good,” said Zaw Zaw Myo Lwin, who has been an ardent betel chewer since the age of 15. “But like smoking and drinking, it’s addictive, and it can’t be stopped immediately.”

In all of Southeast Asia—one of the few parts of the world where betel nut is still used regularly—Burma has the highest number of users mixing it with tobacco, according to a medical specialist at Insein General Hospital.