By Lee Chyen Yee
TAOYUAN, Taiwan — It tastes bitter, turns your teeth black and causes cancer, but it also gives you a buzz and is served by scantily clad young women.
And that is why it is proving hard for Taiwan’s government to get its heavy betel nut chewers, mostly blue-collar workers, to kick the habit despite the widely known health risks and the red stains left on the sidewalks where users spit out the juice.
Truck drivers in Taiwan, like their counterparts in China, India, Indonesia and elsewhere, chew the nut, which looks like a green olive, for the warming buzz and lightheadedness it gives them, helping them stay awake through long-night journeys.
“I just can’t get enough of betel nuts because eating them is like making love to my wife on our wedding night,” said Lin Shuei-wang, 58, as he popped into his mouth a betel nut freshly wrapped in a leaf coated with spices.
“Taking it with a cigarette and a sip of Wisby (energy drink) is more than heaven,” said Lin, as he took a break from distributing pamphlets in a betel nut shop in Taoyuan county, a drab industrial suburb 40 minutes from Taipei.
Efforts to wean Taiwan off the habit range from puritanical — a ban on young saleswomen showing off their breasts, bellies and buttocks in town — to an environmental appeal for farmers to switch crops as the shallow-rooted betel nut trees have been blamed for deadly mudslides.
“It’s really a dilemma for the government,” said Chang Ching-cheng, agriculture research fellow at the Academia Sinica. “They know that it is harmful and causes cancer, which is a burden on the healthcare system.
“But it’s also hard to imagine the consequences of wiping it out completely. Some farmers rely on it for their livelihood and besides, there are those who are employed in betel nut processing and the betel nut stalls,” she said.
And the women say splitting the nuts, smearing lime down the middle and working at the stands is more lucrative than a job on the assembly line at one of Taiwan’s many high-tech factories.
100 PACKS A DAY
“I’m selling betel nuts because the money is good,” said Hsiao Han, 23, dressed only in a bra, checkered mini-skirt and six-inch-high platform shoes as she tended her stall off a highway in Taoyuan.
“I can easily sell more than 100 packs every day,” she said, as she grabbed a pack of betel nuts from her neon-lit stall and skipped across to a car that had just pulled up. Each pack, the size of a cigarette box, sells for T$50.
It is people like Lin and Hsiao Han who keep Taiwan’s betel nut industry, with output worth T$11.5 billion (US$350 million) in 2004, humming.
The percentage of betel nut chewers among Taiwan’s 16.7 million adults has hovered at 9 percent over the past few years, down from 10.9 percent in 1996.
Taiwan’s output of betel nuts, known as Taiwanese chewing gum, has also fallen steadily to 143,368 tons in 2004 from 172,574 tons in 1998. But it is still Taiwan’s second biggest crop after rice.
Huang Meihua, director for crop production at the Council of Agriculture, said the government had been trying to get local communities to substitute crops, but analysts said that’s easier said than done.
“It’s tough for adults to kick the habit. It’s like smoking. Once you get hooked, it’s hard to quit,” said Chao Kunyu, deputy director-general at the health department bureau.
“That’s why we are spending more efforts in educating young people, so that they don’t pick up the habit. We’re focusing on counties and villages that have a higher proportion of betel nut chewers,” Chao said.
Health officials said it was difficult to provide specific data on how many people contract cancer from chewing betel nuts as the habit was usually accompanied by smoking and drinking.
But die-hard fans like Lin are unfazed.
“If I’m so scared of getting cancer, I would have quit long ago,” said red-lipped Lin as he spat a betel nut quid on to the streets.
(Additional reporting by Richard Dobson)