Friday, July 15, 2016

Myanmar - Govt takes aim at betel chewing

It looks like Myanmar may be going cold turkey on its betel nut habit.

Chewing betel remains popular across the country, with the stimulant regarded by some as a national pastime.

Habitually gnawing at the combination of tobacco and areca nut – both known carcinogens – has destructive health effects. About one-fifth of all cancers in Myanmar are mouth-related.

Betel is now firmly in the crosshairs of the new National League for Democracy-led government.

Last month, the Union government instructed ministries, along with state and region governments, to develop and implement a plan for reducing the use of betel across the country.

The order also instructed all government employees not to chew betel during office hours, and not to allow any betel vendors within government facilities. The move was followed by an announcement in state media on June 5 that the Ministry of Health and Sport is in the process of a campaign to remove betel stands from “public places” and “places of tourist attraction” in urban centres.

There is also reportedly a public education campaign in the works, but repeated attempts to contact the Ministry of Health for clarity about the project went unanswered and unreturned yesterday.

Large segments of the population will likely be affected by the new ban.

A recent Ministry of Health and World Health Organization survey showed that 62 percent of men and 24pc of women in Myanmar use smokeless tobacco products such as betel. This is one of the largest rates of consumption across Southeast Asia.

Myanmar’s addiction rates were also sky high – 44pc of men and 16pc of women use these substances on a daily basis.

A 2014 study conducted in Yangon found that 5pc of the population was so addicted that they lived with harsh oral lesions caused by the substances.

For local and international health experts, the latest curbs are welcome.

A spokesperson for World Health Organization in Myanmar was blunt. He said betel consumption was “a serious public health threat in the country” which is leading to “dramatic increases in the likelihood of developing serious diseases of the gums, teeth, tongue, mouth and throat”.

The spokesperson also said the product is a contributing risk factor for the development of other non-communicable diseases such as heart conditions, diabetes and hypertension.

U Than Sein of national advocacy group the People’s Health Foundation was particularly concerned about the rising trend of usage among the younger generation.

“Children start their habit of betel chewing as young as 10 or 12 years old,” U Than Sein told The Myanmar Times. He also cited a Global Youth Tobacco Survey which showed that smokeless tobacco users among youths age 10 to 15 years in Myanmar tripled from 2001 to 2011.

“We are seeing increasing morbidity and mortality associated with tobacco-related cancer and other diseases like cardiovascular problems, respiratory diseases, and liver, kidney and pancreatic diseases,” he said.

How soon the massive industry can be cut back or even eliminated remains unclear however. The Myanmar Times saw several sellers continue to operate yesterday across Yangon.

The fate of the sellers themselves is also unknown. State media reported that initiatives will include “arrangements to substitute the business of betel nut selling with other vocations”.

Nick Baker

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