Bitter Truth About Betel

Indian researchers have discovered that areca nut is quite addictive and, when combined with tobacco, can lead to cancer.

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If you thought only the tobacco in chewing pan is addictive, think again. Researchers in Bangalore have found that betel nut (Areca catechu or supari), too, is addictive and long-term users develop a dependency on it.

According to a team of researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans), the chances of those chewing areca nut — with or without tobacco — developing oral submucous fibrosis (OSF) are much higher than in smokers. OSF is a medical condition that leads to cancers of the oral cavity and throat.

The relative risk of those who use areca nut along with tobacco developing OSF is nearly 400 times more than plain tobacco users, Nimhans psychiatrist Vivek Benegal and his colleagues at the institute’s Deaddiction Centre said in a study reported online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

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“Traditionally, it is thought that areca nut is not addictive and hence safe to consume. For this reason, even children, for whom other stimulants such as tobacco are taboo, are allowed to use it,” observed Benegal. It is a matter of concern as a significant portion of the younger generation in India consumes areca products, he said.

“Our study shows that it is not just gutka (which contains tobacco along with areca nut and several spices) that is harmful; even plain pan masala is injurious to health as it, too, develops a dependence syndrome on persistent use,” he said.

Tobacco in areca nut mixtures — although not a causative factor of OSF — is believed to be more responsible for the disease as it increases addiction, leading to a greater yearning for nut chewing.

Areca nut, which is said to be the fourth most commonly used psychoactive stimulant, makes more than 70 per cent of its users addicted to it. Popular in South Asia and South-east Asia, it is used by nearly 10 per cent of the world’s population. Though there could be subtle variations in its effects on people, the consumption of areca nut generally produces a sense of well being, euphoria, warm sensation in the body and heightened alertness.

The scientists said that long-term areca users may develop the same kind of dependence syndrome as those indulging in other substances of abuse do. They hoped that the work might highlight a public health problem that has hitherto been ignored.

Sources: The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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