Fewer people nuts over betel chewing in Taiwan

TAIPEI: Betel nut beauties, or “Bin Lang Xi Shi” in Mandarin, were once a common sight along roadsides in Taiwan. These young Taiwanese women wearing seductive, barely-there clothing, sell betel nuts to mostly male customers.

But today, these betel nut beauties are are hard to find on the streets, especially in the northern areas of Taiwan. 

Hsiao Han, a 20-year-old who goes about work clad in a bikini, sells more betel nuts than anyone in her neighborhood. But even she complains that business is not doing well these days. “Business is much harder now … plus the government is urging people not to eat betel nuts,” she said.

Betel nuts were once known as Taiwan’s chewing gum. It gives a buzz equivalent to several shots of espresso, making it popular among construction workers, taxi and truck drivers.

But Taiwan has been pushing people to kick the habit for health reasons. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, oral cancer is closely connected to betel nut chewing. Research shows that nine out of ten oral cancer patients had a habit of chewing betel nuts.

The government’s efforts have paid off as the number of betel nut chewers has halved since 2007.

This is hurting the livelihood of betel nut stall vendors like Jerry Chen. His family has owned a betel nut stall for over 20 years and the 26-year-old has seen sales drop significantly in the past decade.

“In the past five years, people have become more health-conscious. Everyone knows that eating too much betel nuts can cause oral and laryngeal cancer. Now our customers are mostly over 40 years old. There are rarely any young people who chew betel nuts nowadays,” he said.

Still, the value of betel nuts has soared by over 25 per cent in the last five years. Even though one betel nut costs about 20 US cents, local media dubs it “green gold” as the total value of Taiwan’s betel nut output exceeded US$300 million last year, second only to rice.

Agriculture and Food Agency section chief Chen Li-I attributes the increase in output value to the decrease in supply. He said be…