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2022-09-22 11:26:09 Voices

This is the second in a two-part series on the past and present of the areca, better known as the betel nut. Part one can be found here.

In my last article, I analyzed how the betel nut missed its chance to become a globally popular addictive substance along the lines of tobacco. But I shouldn’t overstate the case: As anyone who has lived in southern China and visited a corner store bursting with packages full of betel nuts can attest, they remain highly popular in this part of the world.

The Chinese government’s attitude toward regulating addictive substances is at once strict and lax. Although there are stringent laws in place forbidding the consumption and sale of opiates and many other narcotics, consumers can purchase products such as alcohol, cigarettes, and betel nuts from supermarkets, mom-and-pop stores and streetside peddlers, often without needing to show ID or proof of age.

One reason that betel nuts, which are a stimulant, have avoided stricter regulation is their long history in China. The earliest sources regarding the consumption of betel nuts in China date to the second century B.C., after they were introduced to the region from South and Southeast Asia. In the centuries that followed, betel nuts became known throughout the country, first as a way to treat tropical illnesses, then as an offering used in Buddhist rituals. In the 17th century, when the Manchu established a new dynasty, they not only assimilated Confucian theories, but also the habit of carrying betel nuts from the south in silk pouches wherever they went, which they ate to freshen their breath or as an after-meal snack.

Yet, while betel nuts remain popular in parts of China, they are no longer as widespread or common as they once were, especially outside of the south. There are two main reasons for this shift: First, in the 19th century, the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion destabilized the national betel nut trade. The widespread poverty the wars caused also made the nuts a luxury item that most Chinese could not afford. Not long after, as reformers sought to modernize the nation, chewing on betel nuts and other traditional customs were stigmatized as “backwards.”

Betel nuts on sale, Shanghai, Sept. 16, 2022. IC

Betel nuts on sale, Shanghai, Sept. 16, 2022. IC

This campaign was largely successful, with one major exception: the central Chinese city of Xiangtan, in Hunan province. Traditionally a hub for the trade of betel nuts along the Yangtze River, the city maintained its fervor for the addictive nuts, and for a time it was essentially the only place in continental China where the nuts were still consumed.

The Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion destabilized the national betel nut trade.

Betel nut chewing would not experience a resurgence outside of Xiangtan until the reform and opening-up period. Beginning in the 1980s, farmers in the southern island province of Hainan began cutting down the rubber trees planted in the early days of the People’s Republic and replacing them with more lucrative betel nut crops. As production gradually resumed, Xiangtan’s betel nut industry revived with it, birthing several successful brands that have survived to this day.

To win over consumers in the rest of the country, these brands began spending large sums on advertising. In the early 2000s, when the Hunan provincial television station was becoming appointment viewing nationwide thanks to hits like “Super Girl,” betel nut companies saw a chance to reach buyers far outside their regional base, especially among the rising class of laborers with disposable income. In 2004, the host of “Super Girl” delivered a ringing endorsement for a Xiangtan betel nut brand on air; within a few years, betel nuts were back in stock nationwide.

But these aggressive ad campaigns are not without risk. Although their history in China has helped them avoid the regulation and stigma carried by other drugs, outside of Xiangtan, betel nuts had all but disappeared from the mainland for a century. Their newfound popularity is not a tribute to tradition, but a reflection of the nuts’ appeal in today’s fast-paced, high-stress urban life.

Meanwhile, because the cultivation of betel nuts is limited to certain climactic regions in China, their production, processing and logistics is highly traceable. A handful of large private corporations dominate both the market and distribution channels. This makes them an easy and appealing target for taxation and regulation.

The latter-day popularity of betel nuts in China is ultimately a product of the mutual influence of three stakeholders: industry, local governments, and the public. Industry here refers to a range of groups, including the primarily Hainan-based farmers who cultivate the nuts, the primarily Hunan-based companies that process and sell them, and a handful of media outlets that have benefitted from the sale of betel nut ads. Meanwhile, because local government revenues in Hunan and Hainan are directly tied to the success of betel nut growers and sellers, they have an incentive to adopt a permissive, even protective attitude toward the industry.

A man chews betel nut in Qionghai, Hainan province, 2021. VCG

A man chews betel nut in Qionghai, Hainan province, 2021. VCG

But as betel nut consumption spread to regions far beyond Hainan and Hunan, there have been signs of mounting opposition to the practice, both in the media and among the broader public.

Betel nuts are a known carcinogen, and over the past decade, media outlets not beholden to the industry have repeatedly published high-profile exposés on the risks of betel nut chewing. In 2013, a series of special reports, collectively titled The Disfigured Face of the Betel Nut Industry, drew the public’s attention toward the link between betel nuts and oral cancer. Ever since this landmark event, every news report or national advertisement campaign featuring betel nuts is invariably followed by a social media backlash, as users call for stricter regulation and better awareness campaigns. Just this week, the eastern city of Yiwu reportedly ordered betel nut products removed from food shelves, to widespread media and public approval.

The central authorities have so far struck a delicate balance between industry, local governments, and the public. A serious clampdown on the betel nut industry would not only spell disaster for the tens of thousands of betel nut farmers in Hainan, it would also cause local governments in Hainan and Hunan to lose out on significant tax revenues. And yet, if the government is overly permissive, its risks provoking the ire of the people.

Some in the industry have called instead for adopting the ‘low-profile, high-profits’ strategy of tobacco companies.

Betel nut companies face a similar balancing act: If they go all-out in terms of advertising, they may be able to increase the reach of their brand and market share, but they also risk sparking a public backlash that could lead to greater regulation. Some in the industry have called instead for adopting the “low-profile, high-profits” strategy of tobacco companies, and as early as March 2019, the Hunan Betel Nut Industry Association called on companies to remove all advertisements for the product.

But unlike the Chinese tobacco industry, the majority of betel nut companies on the Chinese mainland are privately owned, making it difficult to rally them into collective action. Even the industry association's "requirements" are merely appeals. There will always be companies willing to take big risks in the interests of gaining the lion’s share of the market in the short term, even if it puts the entire industry at risk in the long run.

It may already be too late. In September 2021, the National Radio and Television Administration forbade the promotion of betel nuts and derivative products on TV and streaming services. And the local bans currently under consideration in Zhejiang and elsewhere threaten to take a big bite out of the industry’s profits. Betel nuts have achieved tremendous revival on the Chinese mainland since the 1980s, but the market’s best days may already be behind it.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: A betel nut seller sorts goods in Lingshui, Hainan province, 2019. Tong Guoqiang/VCG)