Should You Chew Betel Nut?
ON A street in Southern Asia, a friendly person smiles, revealing blackened teeth and a mouth filled with blood-red saliva. The person then spits on the pavement, leaving an unsightly red stain. He or she is chewing betel nut.
From East Africa, Pakistan, and India and through Southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and Micronesia, betel-nut users number hundreds of millions—about 10 percent of the world’s population. Betel-nut vendors, sometimes with their children, set up their tables in public markets and on the streets. Other vendors employ neon lights and scantily clad girls—“betel-nut beauties”—to attract customers.
Worldwide, betel-nut sales bring in billions of dollars. What, though, is betel nut? Why do so many people chew it? How does the habit affect their health? What is the Bible’s view of the practice? And how can users kick the habit?
What Is Betel Nut?
What is commonly called betel nut is actually the fleshy fruit of the areca palm (betel palm), a tropical plant found in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. The name betel comes from the unrelated betel-pepper plant. Betel-nut chewers wrap a piece of areca fruit in a betel-pepper leaf, along with a little mineral lime. The lime promotes the release of alkaloid stimulants. Some chewers add spices, tobacco, or sweeteners to enhance the flavor.
This preparation stimulates the production of saliva and colors it blood-red. Hence, chewers spit frequently, even out of moving vehicles, to the peril of passersby!
Chewing Their Way to Misery!
“Areca nut has been used since antiquity and has assumed major social, cultural and even religious roles,” says a report in Oral Health. “Users often consider it harmless and report a sense of well-being, euphoria, [and] a warm sensation of the body . . . Evidence has shown, however, that it is far from harmless.” How so?
Drug-prevention authorities believe that one of the alkaloids in betel nut can be habit forming. Indeed, some users chew up to 50 betel nuts a day! Before long, teeth become stained, and gum disease may follow. Habitual users, according to Oral Health, may develop “chewers mucosa”—a brownish-red staining and often wrinkling of the mucous membrane lining the mouth. They may also develop a “chronic, progressive, scarring . . . of the oral mucosa,” a condition called oral submucous fibrosis.
Betel-nut chewing is also linked to a form of mouth cancer called oral squamous cell carcinoma, which can also occur at the back of the throat. The high incidence of oral cancer among adults in Southeast Asia seems to bear this out. In the Taiwan area, approximately 85 percent of oral cancer cases occur in betel-nut chewers. Moreover, “Taiwan’s rate of oral cancer—one of the island’s top 10 causes of death—has nearly quadrupled in the past 40 years,” says The China Post.
The situation is much the same elsewhere. The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier states: “Papua New Guinea’s favourite chew, the betelnut, is killing at least 2,000 people a year and is responsible for many health problems, according to the PNG Medical Society.” “The effects of chronic betel usage,” according to one doctor and medical writer, “are at least as diverse as those of smoking” and include cardiovascular disease.
What Is the Bible’s View?
The Bible is not a medical textbook, and it does not specifically mention betel-nut chewing. It does, however, contain a broad range of principles that can help us to lead cleaner, healthier, and better lives. Think about the following Bible verses and the questions they prompt.
“Beloved ones, let us cleanse ourselves of every defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in God’s fear.” (2 Corinthians 7:1) “Present your bodies . . . holy, acceptable to God.” (Romans 12:1) Would a person be holy, or clean, in God’s eyes if he were to pollute his body by chewing betel nut?
“By [God] we have life.” (Acts 17:28) “Every good gift and every perfect present is from above.” (James 1:17) Life is a precious gift from God. Is a person who indulges in habits that can cause disease showing respect for that gift?
“No one can slave for two masters.” (Matthew 6:24) “I will not let myself be brought under authority by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12) Should a person who wants to please God allow himself to become a slave to an unclean habit, letting it rule his life?
“You must love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) “Love cannot wrong a neighbour.” (Romans 13:10, The New English Bible) Would we be showing genuine love for others if we spit unsightly—and unhygienic—red saliva on paths, sidewalks, or other areas?
Inevitably, ‘what we sow we reap.’ (Galatians 6:7, 8) This is a fundamental law of nature. Hence, if we sow bad habits, we will reap what is bad. However, when we live as God intended for us to live, which includes having good habits, we will not only reap what is good but also find true and lasting happiness. If you habitually chew betel nut but want to lead a better, more rewarding life by doing what is right in God’s eyes, how can you conquer your habit? Why not prayerfully consider the following three tried-and-tested steps?
Three Steps to Kicking the Habit
1. Be motivated. To overcome a bad habit, you need stronger motivation than merely knowing about the risk to your health. After all, many people persist in chewing betel nut, smoking tobacco, or abusing drugs, knowing full well that their habit can endanger their health and life. To strengthen your motivation, why not learn about your Creator and his deep love for you by examining the Bible? “The word of God is alive and exerts power,” says Hebrews 4:12.
2. Ask God for help. “Keep on asking, and it will be given you,” said Jesus Christ. “Keep on seeking, and you will find; keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you. For everyone asking receives, and everyone seeking finds, and to everyone knocking it will be opened.” (Luke 11:9, 10) When the true God, Jehovah, sees you prayerfully and sincerely looking to him for support and strength, he will not ignore you. “God is love,” says 1 John 4:8. One who experienced that love was the Christian apostle Paul. He wrote: “For all things I have the strength by virtue of him who imparts power to me.”—Philippians 4:13.
3. Seek the support of others. The people with whom you associate can have a powerful influence on you for good or for bad. “He that is walking with wise persons will become wise, but he that is having dealings with the stupid ones will fare badly,” says Proverbs 13:20. So choose your associates wisely! Among Jehovah’s Witnesses there are many who once used betel nut. But by associating with fellow believers and studying the Bible, they received the extra help they needed to conquer their unclean habit.
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THEY KICKED THE HABIT
Awake! interviewed five people who once chewed betel nut but have since given up the habit. Consider what they have to say.
Why did you take up chewing betel nut?
Pauline: My parents introduced me to betel nut when I was a small child. That was the custom in my island village in Papua New Guinea.
Betty: My father gave me betel nut when I was two years old. In my teens, I used to carry so many betel nuts with me that I was like a betel nut tree! I was so addicted that the first thing I did every morning was chew betel nut.
Wen-Chung: I started chewing betel nut when I was 16 years old. It was considered cool and grown-up, and I wanted to be accepted.
Jiao-Lian: I sold betel nut to support myself financially. In order to succeed, I felt I had to make sure my product was top quality, so I began to sample it. That led to my habit.
How did the habit affect your health?
Jiao-Lian: My mouth, teeth, and lips were stained blood-red. I’m embarrassed to look at photographs of me taken back then. I still suffer from lip ulcers.
Pauline: I used to get mouth ulcers, nausea, and diarrhea.
Betty: I weighed just 77 pounds (35 kg), which was grossly underweight for an adult my height. My teeth looked ugly, and I often cleaned and polished them with steel wool.
Sam: I used to get diarrhea and gum disease. Now I have only one tooth! And it probably did not help that I used steel wool to polish my teeth.
Why did you give up the habit?
Pauline: I read in the Bible at 2 Corinthians 7:1 that God wants us to “cleanse ourselves of every defilement of flesh.” I decided to try hard to please my Creator.
Sam: I wanted Jehovah God’s holy spirit to operate in my life, so I prayed that Jehovah help me to resist the temptation to chew betel nut. He answered my prayers. I have not used betel nut for about 30 years.
Jiao-Lian: While reading the Bible, I came across the words “Cleanse your hands, you sinners.” (James 4:8) That directive leaped out at me. Could I rightly be using and selling betel nut, knowing the harm that it can do? Then and there I decided to ‘cleanse my hands’ of this physically and spiritually unclean habit.
How have you benefited from giving up the habit?
Wen-Chung: I started chewing betel nut in order to be accepted by my peers. I now enjoy far more precious relationships, both with Jehovah and with my spiritual brothers and sisters.
Sam: I am now much healthier—physically and spiritually. And because I do not squander money on bad habits, I am better able to take care of my family.
Pauline: I feel free and clean. My teeth are white and strong. And my house and garden are free of betel-nut skins and ugly red stains.
Betty: I have a clean conscience and much better health. In fact, I am able to work both as a schoolteacher and as a full-time Christian minister.
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Chronic betel-nut chewing may lead to serious medical conditions
Stained teeth and gum disease
Oral submucous fibrosis
Oral squamous cell carcinoma
[Picture on page 22]
Betel nuts wrapped in a betel-pepper leaf