BETEL NUTS assail the nostrils before they thrill the tongue. At a shop in Xiangton, a city in the central province of Hunan, they are sold in dried form - dark and wrinkled in blue-and-white porcelain bowls, with flavoring of spice, mint, orange and cinnamon oil. They sell for a few yuan apiece [under $1].

A local song celebrated their ability to induce a bit of buzz. ''The more you chew the betel nut, the livelier you'll feel...... Spit one out and pop another in.''

People in Xiangtan exchange them in greeting. From teenagers to elderly mahjong players, the city's residents chomp furiously to get their fix of the nut's main stimulant, arecoline.

In 2017 China's regulators named arecoline as a carcinogen  [long after the World Health Organization had done so]. Also that year doctors in Hunan published findings that oral submucous fibrosis, a disease from chewing betel nuts that often leads to cancer, was ''widespread'' in the province, with rates much higher than elsewhere in China.

They predicted that oral cancer cases would become a ''humanitarian catastrophe'' in Hunan, rising from almost 25,000 in 2016 to 300,000 in 2030. Something to chew on, you would think. 

In February as cases of civic-19 soared in China the National Health Commission even included betel nuts in a prescription based on traditional Chinese medicine for removing ‘’dampness in the lungs.‘’

Firms in Hunan province handed out mask and betel nut care packages to taxi drivers and street cleaners. 

The head of a betel nut association on Hainan island told state media a story often recounted in Xiangtan : a monk there survived a plague in the 17th century by continuous chewing of the nut.

The sector is adept at deflecting concerns. In March. 2019. the association in Xiangtan said it was banning advertisements by local-betel-nut firms.

That seemed encouraging - until it emerged that, even under questioning by state media about the purpose of the move, the group would not admit to health concerns. Compliance with the order was patchy. Since August, a comedy show, ''Deyun Laugh Club'', has been watched 500 million times.

Among its sponsors is Wu Zi Zui. [ FIVE DRUNK MEN ] one of Hunan's biggest betel nut producers.

Opening ads for its goji-flavored betel nut promised that chewing it will make watching the show ''even more fun''.

The World Students Society thanks The Economist.


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