Bloomberg news service reports that Betel Nut Girls are killing Taiwan…

The Taiwan government’s plan to curb cancer faces tough opposition: about 60,000 women who sit in roadside glass booths, often wearing little more than a bikini, selling the island’s oldest legal drug.

The so-called betel-nut beauties, who are unique to Taiwan, peddle the island’s second-largest crop to 17.5 percent of the adult male population, according to government estimates.

Chewing addictive betel nuts, the seed of the betel palm, increases the risk of mouth cancer, according to Taiwan’s Department of Health. Officials are encouraging farmers to plant alternatives to the $359 million annual crop, urging about 1.6 million users to quit.

“We aren’t very optimistic,” said Wu Chien-yuan, a Health Department section chief in Taipei. “We’ll focus on preventing people from starting.”

And here I thought it was because betel was addictive. After all, plenty of fat ugly women sell betel nut, and make good money doing so. The article says the guvmint is cracking down:

Sellers are coming under pressure, too. The police are stepping up inspections of betel-nut beauties for moral and safety reasons, said Patricia Huang, a spokeswoman at the Ministry of the Interior.

“Their revealing clothing may distract drivers and cause car accidents, as well as prompt male clients to harass or even sexually assault them,” Huang said.

County officials are helping, closing down booths if they judge sellers’ clothing to be too revealing, said Wang Yun-tsen, deputy director of economic development in Taoyuan, which is home to the country’s largest international airport.

Taoyuan “is the main gate of our nation,” Wang said. The saleswomen “aren’t a good subculture and we don’t want people to use them to attract tourists.”

The Taoyuan crackdown caused a flap, but it was purely local. There have been no real crackdowns elsewhere.

Frog in a Well also posted on Betel Nut this week, ruminations on history and culture:

Thinking about Taiwan and betel nut led me to do a bit of research that turned out to be pretty surprising. I had always lumped betel-chewing in with all the other drug foods, tobacco, opium etc, and assumed that it appeared about the same time. According to Rooney Betel Chewing Traditions in South-East Asia, however, the custom goes back much further and probably should be lumped in with alcohol in a social, if not a chemical sense. Rooney is interested in ceramics, and thus the book is more about the elaborate betel sets that are common in Southeast Asia, but there is a fair amount in the book about the social context of betel use, again mostly in Southeast Asia.

I found a lot of this to be different than the betel customs in Taiwan. In particular she emphasizes that Southeast Asians would prepare their own quids, that it was a social ritual with considerable meaning, and, of course, that it required equipment that could be quite elaborate. In Taiwan betel was and I think still is a state monopoly, and it was sold from little stands in pre-made quids. It was also a distinctly Taiwanese and working class thing. Most of the foreign students would try it at least once, but none of the (mostly middle-class and mainlander) Taiwan students would touch it.