Southeast Asia's Biggest Little Drug Problem

By McCarton Ackerman 11/29/13

Having long been ingrained in Asian culture, some countries are now starting to convince addicts of the dangers of betel nuts.

Who wouldn't want to chew this?
Photo via Shutterstock

Betel quids, or "nuts," are relatively unknown in the United States, but they just happen to be the fourth-most commonly used psychoactive substance in the world behind tobacco, alcohol and caffeinated drinks.

More than 600 million people chew betel nuts, otherwise known as small parcels of areca nuts, wrapped in a betel leaf and coated with slaked lime. Most of the parcels that are sold throughout southeast Asia contain tobacco, but spices can be added in as well. And while the betel nuts are used as an energy boost among cab drivers and other professions, they also cause severe health issues like reddish-black stained teeth from the dyes, or even oral cancer. "Having one is okay, but the danger increases when you start having the second one. When you reach a certain point, people will get cancer," said Professor Ying-chin Ko, vice president of Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan. However, the low cost of the betel nut parcels makes them appealing to consumers – a pack of three in Myanmar costs 100 Burmese kyat, or roughly 10 cents American.

Despite the dangers, chewing betel nuts dates back to the Bronze Age, and the practice has long been an important part of cultural and even religious rituals in some parts of Asia. In Taiwan, scantily clad betel nut vendors  have even become something of a tourist attraction in certain parts. Women are drawn to selling the parcels because they can make up to $1,900 per month, roughly twice the amount of a recent college graduate's starting salary. The trend of sexy betel nut vendors began in the 1990s, but is so pervasive now that the girls are often forced to dress provocatively if they want to have any chance of selling their product. "In Taiwan, if you want to sell betel nut, you have to take off some clothes," said a taxi driver named Hsu. “If you wear too much, you won’t make any money.” Unfortunately, some of the women have to deal with the hazards of the job. "There are a lot of perverts. They'll try to touch your breasts, or stroke you. Usually we take care of it ourselves. I've slapped customers before," said an anonymous vendor.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.