Taiwanese farmers used to call the betel nut ‘green gold’. In fact, in the mid-1990s as much as a fifth of the island’s arable land was used for growing areca. Trips around Taiwan were brightened by so-called Betelnut Beauties – young women who sold the chewy fruit from neon-lit booths at the roadside.
Reportedly there are still more than 50,000 of these tiny retail stores along Taiwan’s streets and highways, although the young ladies have largely gone, replaced by middle-aged dama or male store-owners.
The change relates to the dwindling popularity of areca among the island’s younger generation. Betel nut is a mild stimulant but chewing it has gone out of fashion (doing so stains the teeth red, while spitting out the blood-like liquid, even into small paper cups, is frowned upon by more cosmopolitan hipsters.)
Medical surveys have shown strong correlations between oral cancer and a betel nut chewing habit. As a result Taiwan’s government has stepped in to curtail the practice too, punishing people who spit out nut juice in public areas, and even mandating that the remaining Betelnut Beauties dress more conservatively.
Across the Taiwan Strait, sales of ‘green gold’ have been rising, however, especially in provinces like Hunan, where local farmers have been growing more areca.
Driving the crop’s marketing is a private sector firm known as Kouweiwang (‘king of taste’). Xiangtan Daily reported this month that Kouweiwang was founded in 2000 and it has grown into the country’s biggest betel nut retailer, largely thanks to a retail network of third-party franchisees. The company had more than one million nationwide sales outlets by 2018.
According to the Hunan-based newspaper, there are nearly 9,500 betel nut processing firms in China. More than 4,000 are based in Hunan (Hainan comes second with about 3,700) and these companies are significant taxpayers for their local governments.
However, the fast-growing industry has been on the defensive after an article warning about the side effects of chewing betel nuts went viral online this month.
Describing the nut as “a soft drug”, the report warned that a “Rmb100 billion ($14.87 billion) industry” is putting the health of 60 million customers at risk.
The article repeats some of the common arguments against betel nut. But it has also struck a nerve among consumers at a time when medical regulators have been tightening rules on the marketing of healthcare products (see WiC436 for the action against ‘naturopathy’ conglomerate Tianjin Quanjian for pyramid selling and other irregularities). A tonic called Hongmao Medicinal Liquor, which has grown in popularity through intensive TV advertising, also faced scrutiny amid questions over whether it was a “medicine” or merely an alcoholic drink (see WiC406).
Chinese betel nut retailers such as Kouweiwang have also been major spenders on advertising in recent years, and some of Hunan’s food industry associations have even been promoting the medicinal effects of chewing the nut.
The viability of some of these marketing strategies now looks to be in question. National Business Daily reports that the Hunan government published directives this month blocking betel nut retailers from advertising on TV or in newspapers. And according to Beijing Youth Daily, this could be the start of broader regulatory oversight of the sector. It points out that the central government is considering a “policy combo” that could include raising taxes on areca products to levels in the tobacco industry.
Something similar seems to be happening in e-cigarettes, where the authorities have started to tighten oversight of the fast-growing but poorly regulated vaping business (see WiC445).
What else do e-cigarettes and chewing betel nuts have in common? Both have been wrestling a little market share from the state tobacco monopoly. That matters because China Tobacco provides about 6% of the central government’s fiscal revenues – i.e. over Rmb1 trillion a year. Moreover the cigarette behemoth has just filed to IPO one of its subsidiaries in Hong Kong, making it more uppity about competing addictions.
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