Myanmar's deadly betel-chewing habit

By Kyaw Ye LynnYANGON (AA) – It was a Monday in September when former British diplomat Vicky Bowman was hit by a warm stream of betel juice as she was waiting at the railroad crossing in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon.“I was standing by a train crossing with a group of people waiting to cross and was hit across my face and arm by betel spit which someone on a passing train spat out,” she said.She has lived in the country for about 12 years between 1990 and 2018. She served as the second secretary at the British Embassy in Yangon (1990-1993) and as British ambassador (2002-2006).“It was my first time — other than a little on my feet from a taxi,” she told Anadolu Agency.“So I guess I have been lucky,” said Bowman.Chewing betel quid — the package of betel leaf containing areca nut, slake lime and raw and cured tobacco — has been assumed as the country’s national habit for centuries.Betel quids are sold at every street corner in Myanmar and red streams of the juice (caused by the sludge of betel juice) on roadsides and thoroughfares are the most visible symptom of the menace.
– Campaigns
Health authorities enacted a law banning smoking and chewing betel quid in tobacco-free places such as schools, hospitals and sports stadiums in 2006 to reduce consumption. They, however, seem to be failing at the battle.According to the Public Health Department under the Ministry of Sports and Health, around 10 million people chew betel quid alongside 6.2 million who smoke and 4.7 million who drink alcohol.“Our people think betel-chewing habit is not as dangerous as smoking. Most people are aware of the harm of smoke, but don’t think it (betel-chewing) is an unhealthy habit,” said Kyaw Kan Kaung, director at the department’s non-communicable diseases section.“That makes us very difficult to convince them to quit betel-chewing,” he said.However, the fact is that it is deadly addiction as all of the ingredients in a betel quid are cancer-causing agents, he said, adding that it is a major cause of oral and laryngeal cancers in the country.“All oral cancer patients admitted in public hospitals consume smokeless tobacco, mostly betel quid, for years or for decades,” he said.Three public hospitals in Yangon, the second largest city Mandalay and Taung Gyi of Shan State receive more than 7,000 cancer patients annually.“This is an alarming level,” he said.

– Habit

Min Thein, 42, a Yangon resident, told Anadolu Agency that he has been chewing betel quid on a daily basis since he started working as a taxi driver 15 years ago.“It keeps me alert,” he said, adding that he has not suffered any health problem so far.“I don’t put cured tobacco in betel quid. With just raw tobacco, I don’t think it will affect my health,” he said.“What I suffered is constipation occasionally,” he said, adding that he spits into a plastic bottle, not onto the street.Vicky said taxi drivers should be charged for littering if they spit betel or throw the plastic bags or bottles they spit into on the roads.“They should take it home and dispose it off,” she said.Health authorities, in collaboration with community-based organizations, have launched awareness campaigns against betel-chewing since 2017.“Public awareness is key as it is deep-rooted in our society, and the ministry alone can't raise awareness among people,” said Kyaw Kan Kaung.People Health Foundation (PHF), a local non-profit organization, is actively working on awareness campaigns.PHF’s vice-chair Thein Swe told Andolu Agency that the campaigns target not only betel chewers, but betel growers and producers.“There are millions of betel farmers and betel nut (areca nut) farmers here. We have to encourage them to switch to other crops,” he said.He, however, acknowledges that it is not easy to convince them to do so.“Because it’s profitable,” he said.