Betel Nuts – Abandoned Epiphany

Betel Nuts – Abandoned Epiphany

Over 91,000 lives in Pakistan were claimed by various kinds of cancer in the year 2013 and increasing statistics were witnessed in new cases of fatality from different types of cancer among men and women across the country. According to a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in the year 2015, Pakistan is one of the 62 countries in which the age-standardized death rates for all cancers has increased rather than decreased between 1990 and 2013. Based on the said report, International Health Experts urge Pakistan to formulate a clear national strategy to control the spread of cancer. Significantly among the leading cancers, the number of new cases of esophageal cancer in men is found at 5,600 in 2013. Among the top 10 causes of cancer death in Pakistan, oral cancer showed the male deaths at 3,400 in 2013.

Government of Pakistan ignored an imminent threat to health of the people of Pakistan due to betel nuts, which are commonly consumed by adults and minors all across Pakistan. Areca-nuts (commonly known as betel nuts/ betel quids) are the fruits of the areca palm which grows in tropical environments, and are thus indigenous to the Asia Pacific region and also including Pakistan. Betel nuts are commonly chewed in Pakistan either on their own or as ingredients in paan and supari, as such food products are commonly available in local markets. It is worthwhile to mention that common supari(s) include Tulsi and Raseeli which are frequently consumed not just by adults but also conveniently accessible to minors at departmental stores and available in marketplaces.

The history of betel nuts in South and Southeast Asia including Pakistan can be traced back as far as 2,000 years and the chewing of these nuts is a habit passed down through generations. Betel nuts are among the most popular psychoactive substances in the world, placed at fourth place after nicotine, alcohol and caffeine. But while chewing them is an important cultural and social tradition in some parts of Pakistan, growing evidence worldwide points out serious health effects from its regular use. Natural alkaloid in betel nuts releases adrenaline which causes an energy boost and thus people frequently use it for refreshing purposes. In fact, some studies also reveal that the use of betel nuts also results in feelings of euphoria and well-being.

On the other hand, betel nuts’ previous evaluation made by the World Health Organization in 1985 showed that betel nuts when consumed with tobacco act as carcinogen to human beings. However, in a later study betel nuts have been declared as Group 1 poisonous carcinogen to human beings irrespective of whether consumed alone. The commonly caused cancer(s) from betel nuts include esophageal cancer, oral cancer and cancer related to pancreas. Furthermore, the use of betel nuts in oral consumption also causes several side-effects including cardiovascular and digestive issues and anti-inflammatory wound-healing properties, and also an increase in susceptibility to many diseases including HIV.

An article published in the Official Journal of Indian Society of Medical & Paediatric Oncology confirming several adverse effects of consuming betel nuts by all ages, confirmed that on the basis of the consumption of betel nuts, India was at constant threat of having the most number of patients diagnosed with the cases of oral cancer. Needless to emphasis is that based on the comprehensive report of World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Authority of US has placed an alert on the import of all products containing betel nuts in the US. Having said that, developed countries have already commenced efforts to formulate clear policies to ban food products containing betel nuts on the already said epiphany.

We have lost many precious lives in the last few years due to increasing cases of cancer caused by betel nuts. Now it is high time to make laws and formulate policies on the consumption of betel nuts, their sale to minors and their promotion and advertisement, in order to avoid further loss of lives.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any organization with which he might be associated.

Humza Rashid

Author: Humza Rashid

The writer is an advocate of the High Courts of Pakistan and holds an LLM degree from Northumbria University, Newcastle, England.