September 6, 2016
Betel nuts are an immensely popular, addictive, and deadly snack in Taiwan, India, Myanmar and other regions of Asia. Chewed by nearly 10% of the world’s population, betel nuts are the 4th most commonly used psychoactive substances (behind tobacco, alcohol, and caffeinated drinks). These nuts, known as Taiwan’s chewing gum, yield a buzz akin to several shots of espresso, or amphetamine.
Alarmingly, this snack gives more than a buzz, being associated with a high incidence of grotesque flesh-eating tumors. In Taiwan, 90% of the 5,700 oral cancers diagnosed each year are in patients with a betel nut chewing habit. Statistically, the cancer will kill 40% of these patients.
As with many addictive substances, kicking the habit is not easy, and faces economically driven pushback from producers and vendors dependent on the significant betel nut industry. Despite these challenges, Taiwan is working to confront this deadly public health threat with new regulations and education efforts on the dangers of betel nuts.