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Betel vendors spitting mad at prospect of govt ban

A Burmese man chewing betel nut (Photo: F. Castello/Wikicommons)

Sales of betel quid are down almost by half in many parts of Burma amid rumours of a government ban on chewing betel.

Following a recent announcement by the government urging the public to reduce consumption of betel nut and its accompaniments, rumours have circulated widely of a looming crackdown and strict regulations on betel quid vendors. Meanwhile, sales of the leaf and its spices have plummeted, according to U Sein, a betel quid supply shop owner.

“While rumours have played an obvious role in the fall in sales, it also has to do with [Muslims fasting for] Ramadan this month,” he said. “Betel quid sellers are now concerned for their safety and livelihood, and that has exacerbated the decline.”

Zaw Min, a wholesale dealer of khun-ya, the Burmese name for betel quid, said chewing betel does not stimulate users to commit crimes, such as in the ways alcohol and drugs do. He said that any ban on this traditional practice will threaten many betel quid sellers’ livelihoods, as well as the betel farmers.

“The government should instruct betel quid vendors to provide their customers with plastic bags to spit in, and also each municipality should provide trash bins,” he said, in relation to the constant complaint by non-betel chewers that streets, pavements and public places become stained red with the betel juice that users spit out.

“It’s the same as with cigarettes,” Zaw Min continued. “Tougher regulations will force up the price of betel quid, and that will inevitably lower consumption. People will still chew it, but not as much as before.”

A recent report by The Associated Press suggested that the price of khun-ya had increased fourfold across Burma, officially known as Myanmar, due to a bad harvest caused by a drought followed by floods.

Officially known as areca, the betel nut is in fact a berry. The chewing of betel as a stimulant goes back thousands of years in the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea. A betel quid is traditionally offered as a greeting, and is widely used in ceremonies and rituals.

The nut is usually wrapped in a betel leaf, which has been smeared with calcium hydroxide, sometimes called slaked lime. Other ingredients, such as tobacco, sweets or spices may be added.

Though it offers users a mild “high” and decreases appetite, medical research suggests the areca nut is carcinogenic, with or without tobacco. The World Health Organization noted in 2014 that oral cancer rates are significantly higher in Asian countries where betel is traditionally chewed. Other studies have found that chewing betel quid increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.