Current Weather
The Spy FM

From Betel Leaf Chew To Tobacco, Indians Swap One Vice For Another

Filed by KOSU News in World News.
August 16, 2011

Our colleague over at NPR’s foreign desk, Corey Flintoff, filed this radio piece for today’s Morning Edition on a rich tradition in India of making and chewing spice and nut packets wrapped in betel leaves called paan. It turns out that paan is being threatened by an influx of cheaper commercially prepared packets containing tobacco.

We thought it was just another example of how bad Western habits are spreading globally, like processed food and couch sitting and TV-watching.

But that’s not the whole story.

In many Southeast Asian cultures, chewing paan is a sacred part of wedding rituals and is prized for everything from freshening breath to aiding digestion to relieving stress, although we haven’t found scientific evidence for these claims.

Flintoff says chewing paan — a stimulant — used to be the daily routine of “everyone from rickshaw pullers to wealthy gold merchants.” There are more than 30 varieties in India alone, flavored with ground betel nuts (a.k.a. areca nuts) and lime paste. Paan wallahs, or makers, then mix in different combinations of spices like cardamom or anise, depending on the region.

But modern Indians are now turning to commercial tobacco-laced pouches known as gutka for a little pick-me-up. These packets are ready-made, cost about 1 cent versus paan’s 45 cents and up, and don’t stain your mouth red like the betel nuts in a traditional paan.

Traditional vendors are losing business, Flintoff reports, and India is considering banning gutka and chewing tobacco as a public health hazard.

But it turns out that traditional paan isn’t particularly healthy either. Several studies show that long-time paan chewers risk oral cancers and other diseases — just like tobacco chewers. And lots of paan marketed in India as “tobacco-free” has turned up with nicotine in it. Some of the products have also been found to be loaded with heavy metals.

So maybe the Western influence is really just making a bad habit even worse. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

11AM to 12PM The Story

The Story

The Story with Dick Gordon brings the news home through first-person accounts. The live weekday program is passionate, personal, immediate and relevant to listeners, focusing on the news where it changes our lives, causes us to stop and rethink, inspires us.

Listen Live Now!

12PM to 1PM Fresh Air

Fresh Air

This one-hour program features Terry Gross' in-depth interviews with prominent cultural and entertainment figures, as well as distinguished experts on current affairs and news.

View the program guide!

1PM to 2PM Talk of the Nation

Talk of the Nation

Journalist Neal Conan leads a productive exchange of ideas and opinions on the issues that dominate the news landscape.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center