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  1. Terrapinzflyer
    In the Pacific, chewing betel nut (or areca nut from the areca catechu palm) is a practice restricted up until recent times to a few island nations yet it is estimated that between 10 and 20 per cent of the world's population chews areca nut in some form.

    This makes areca nut the fourth most widely used psychoactive substance, after nicotine, ethanol (alcohol) and caffeine.

    The immediate effects of chewing areca nut include mild euphoria and a sense of well being; feelings of general arousal and increased alertness, heart rate and blood pressure; palpitations; sweating and facial flushing; and a warm sensation in the body.

    My father, used to tell me stories about it in PNG when he was there during the war; how everywhere you looked there was red spray where the nut had been chewed up and spat out as if with a high pressure hose: on the ground, in gutters, on walls, beside rubbish bins.

    He told me how the mix of lime and nut would turn the chewer's lips and mouth scarlet. As a child I couldn't see the sense in it. Besides, at that time, I was too far removed from Pacific Island culture to have any real concern.

    Now, as a Fiji citizen, and having visited several countries where betel nut is a part of the culture in the same way kava is to Fiji, I am seriously disturbed by the socio-economic and health burden it has for a nation. Betel nut is a viable cash crop in PNG and other chewing countries.

    A man happily chews betel nut, which is said to give a mild sense of euphoria and feelings of general arousal

    Vendors trading in betel nut are no different to drug dealers except only by its legal status.

    There is evidence that people can develop a tolerance for betel nut and those who chew large amounts on a regular basis may become dependent on it and may experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using it.

    I am equally concerned to see not only betel nut being sold in the Suva market but councils choosing to plant areca palms in centre-road garden beds and beside roads.

    Granted, they are quick growing and very graceful with beautiful deep dark green foliage but is it a responsible choice when there are so many other varieties as equally attractive with far less potential for encouraging the practice?

    I first saw it for myself in Palau. I was met at the airport by staff member of the Palau Conservation Society with whom I had arranged to have a series of meetings. I couldn't help but notice how one of her cheeks bulged as she must have just prepared a betel nut and started chewing it. I could barely understand her when she spoke as this nut, about the size of a small egg, filled one side of her mouth and made talking extremely challenging.

    On our drive to the office she told me that in Palau most people 'chew' and I was soon to find this out.

    They carried around their necks containers for spitting and a pouch for their mixes -leaves, lime powder and other optional extras such as tobacco, cloves or other spices and flavour and drug enhancers. As she drove and in between chatting to me, she would spit into her tin, not discreetly but boldly and loudly.

    It got a lot worse than this. During all the meetings, some attended by senior government officials, everyone chewed and spat. It was like out of a scene from the Mad Hatter's tea party if it wasn't so serious. I wondered if anyone was concerned about )

    the dangers of chewing. These were intelligent, environmentally astute individuals

    yet there was no evidence of their concern

    for the conservation of the human species. At the least, it seemed a bizarre and anti-social practice.

    It was in Honiara in Solomon Islands that I was mortified to witness first-hand what chewing betel nut has on the teeth and mouth. It can cause mouth ulcers, gum disease and extreme tooth decay.

    To be greeted by a friendly smile where the entire mouthful of teeth were rotted to the roots and looking like dead tree stumps was not only commonplace but for me, highly disturbing.

    I wondered just what terrible toothache these chewers must suffer. In fact, they do, as the caustic lime that is mixed to enhance the effect of the nut corrodes all the tooth enamel.

    There in the capital I saw many upsetting sights of mouth and throat deformities. Long-term chewing causes oral submucous fibrosis and oral cancers, including squamous cell carcinoma, peptic ulceration and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

    There is the ever increased risk of Fiji becoming a nation of 'chewers' especially with greater inter-island travel and the readiness to share cultural practices.

    Adolescents, amongst society's greatest risk-takers are prepared to try different things with little regard for the serious consequences of their actions.

    It is important to understand the potential dangers of betel nut chewing in Fiji for the sake of the health and well-being of the population.

    If we all can, in our own ways, large or humble, do something toward discouraging this evil practice then Fiji can continue to be known as a nation of happy, smiling and friendly people.

    nJulie Sutherland is a regular contributor to The Fiji Times on a range of health and social issues affecting Fiji. She was formerly Advisor Development (Social Sector) with the European Commission, Delegation in the Pacific.

    Julie Sutherland
    Thursday, October 28, 2010



  1. kailey_elise
    With the exception of the rather anti-social spitting action required, I'm not seeing how this is much different to coffee here in the States, tea in England, or even Kava in the journalist's Fiji.

    *IS* the lime what causing the tooth decay...or is it the introduction of the "white man's foods", such as white sugar & white flour? (honest question, I haven't looked it up much)

    I'm just loathe to take away peoples cultural practices, just because we think they're "gross" or whatever. I, personally, wouldn't want to run around spitting loudly with red teeth, but if it were part of my culture for a long time and reasonably harmless, I probably wouldn't mind. Coffee's not exactly great for you, and "coffee breath" can be pretty offensive, imo. ;)

  2. Moving Pictures
    Erowid, in it Betel nut section, states that:

    It doesn't differentiate the effects of the lime from the betel nut itself. Lime is pretty basic so in general, it's not good for the teeth. We need toothpaste which is somewhat basic to clean our teeth but even too much toothpaste can eat away at your teeth. In general, it's best that everything we put in our mouths to be as close to neutral as possible, aside from the twice daily teeth brushing. I'm not sure about betel nut itself though. It contains a mild stimulant called arecoline but I don't know if it has any tooth decaying properties. Nor do I know what else is in betel nut that might cause damage. My best guess is that the lime is at fault. There aren't many experience report on it out there but sores on the cheek and gums seem to be a common theme.
  3. Potter
    Could she sound any more white with out using the word "darkies"?? I think not!

    "anti-social"? Betel is nearly intrinsic to social interaction. When a young man wishes to mary a lady, he goes to her family's house and they chew betel and make small talk until it's obvious as to the meaning of his visit. If the matriarch of the family does not approve of him, she will "accidentally" knock the bowl of nuts over, giving him a chance to leave with out an awkward exchange.

    I'll be honest, I can't for the life of me grasp how betel became such a social drug, most of her observations are honest. If you ever found someone chewing gum and talking to be annoying, someone with a huge hung of leaves and spices in their cheek is nearly intolerable... to be! It's impossible to talk in a normal manner and drooling red goo is all but guaranteed. I wonder if the local dialects are better suited to communications with a huge wad in the cheek?

    I can't imagine being around such a lout like this woman, she must be terrible to travel with.
  4. Thirdedge
    Every picture I have seen of Betel chewers they seem to have a huge smile. Makes me assume they are very happy, red teeth and all : )
  5. Memoryburner
    Afoafs girlfriend is cambodian, and her grandma chews betel nut many times a day. Afoaf tried it once, and while it felt okay, he didnt like how it felt in his mouth. It was sooo dry. Afoaf later decided he wanted to try it again, so when they went to the cambodian store, he bought the leaves, the nuts, and the limestone paste. So when they got home, afoaf made himself a pretty nice looking plug (the nuts wrapped in the leaf with the limestone paste rubbed on the inside of the leaf) He put it in his mouth and let it sit there for a couple seconds. He then began to chew. Right when he chewed, he noticed something odd. The whole side of his mouth and tongue that the plug as in began to BURN EXTREMELY BADLY. At first afoaf tried to put up with it (like a dumbass) but after a couple more seconds, spit out the plug. The inside of his mouth/tongue burned for about a week afterwords, and felt as if it was rubbed raw. He decided to give the supplies he had bought to his girlfriends grandma, and when his girlfriend gave it to her, she commented on how he had gotten the wrong kind of limestone paste (it was supposed to be the red kind, he had gotten the white kind, the difference is the acidity).
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