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

A vendor sells betel leaf wrapped in silver foil in Lucknow, India.
A vendor sells betel leaf wrapped in silver foil in Lucknow, India.

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 paanis 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.

Listen to Corey Flintoff's Story

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 paanchewers risk oral cancers and other diseases — just like tobacco chewers. And lots of paanmarketed 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.

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April Fulton is a former editor with NPR's Science Desk and a contributor to The Salt, NPR's Food Blog.