Almost every street corner in Myanmar has a stall selling kun-ya, a traditional sort of stimulating “chewing gum” made with areca nut, betel leaves, dried tobacco leaves and slaked lime paste that remains very much in fashion despite being carcinogenic and severely damaging the user’s teeth.
Kun-ya sellers spread the lime paste (calcium hydroxide) on the betel leaf and sprinkle the tobacco and powdered areca nut on top – sometimes spiced up with cardamom or cloves – before neatly folding the leaf into a square while their customers patiently wait.
Chomping on this potent mix prompts users to sporadically spit out dark-red gobs of sputum, which adorn almost every pavement in the Southeast Asian country.
This popular vice costs only the equivalent of $0.13 for four to six servings.
The areca nut – the fruit of a local type of palm tree – causes a slight euphoric effect and relaxation in a similar way to nicotine. But its long-term use is also a leading factor causing a variety of mouth disorders and even high blood pressure.
Several scientific studies, as well as the International Agency for Research on Cancer, have labeled the areca-based products (both with and without tobacco) that are widely used in the Asia-Pacific region as carcinogenic.
Burmese authorities have attempted to limit its consumption with several awareness campaigns in recent years, while the use of kun-ya is banned at government buildings, schools and hospitals – though these seemingly-ineffective campaigns have had a very underwhelming success rate so far.
According to the World Health Organization, 51 percent of men and 16 percent of women above the age of 15 are avid kun-ya consumers, which significantly raises their chances of contracting cancer in the mouth or esophagus.
“Nothing and no one can stop kun-ya chewing,” Ko A Shay Gui, a 51-year-old local kun-ya street vendor in Yangon, told EFE. “I think it’s because it is rooted in our veins and our culture views it as a good habit.”
His stall, one of the most popular in the old Burmese capital (1885-2005) and the country’s largest city, provides him with a comfortable monthly income of 1.5 million kyat (around $990).
Ritual offerings of kun-ya were already a part of court life in the ancient Burmese kingdoms. Nowadays, the popular product remains a staple gift at funerals and other social events.
Many young citizens of Myanmar – some aged only 16 or even younger – start using it as a pastime with their parents’ consent.
Ko A Shay Gyi used to be a sailor. But at one point, during one of his shore leaves, he tried opening a kun-ya stall and after two months, he realized he had earned the same amount of money as when he was at sea, so he decided it was time for a change in profession.
“Many people can become wealthy with this type of business after only two to five years,” he said.
Apart from the areca nut, kun-ya’s key ingredient is the betel leaf, which is mainly grown around the Irrawaddy River delta, an important rice-producing region.
Many farmers prefer to cultivate betel instead of rice, as it can be grown throughout the entire year. Betel plantations alongside rice fields are a fairly common sight in Myanmar.
Kun-ya also contains tobacco strands – both dark and blonde. Sometimes, special brands of contraband artificially-flavored tobacco are even smuggled in from India and Bangladesh to provide the kun-ya with an extra oomph.
Economically speaking, the betel plantations and kun-ya stalls represent a burgeoning business for many people in Myanmar. The trouble is, it also wrecks consumers’ health by causing painful medical conditions that can ulcerate their faces or devolve into cancer.
According to the People’s Health Foundation, more than 54,000 Myanmarese die every year due to tobacco use, a category that includes kun-ya.
In Thailand, where red-stained teeth from areca and betel were a sign of beauty in the past, authorities have managed to reduce their consumption in large measure because of successful campaigns in the 1940s and 50s.
Several states in India have banned the sale of areca and betel mixed with chewing tobacco (known as “gutka”), but they still allow the sale of “paan masala,” a combination that does not contain any tobacco.
Similar blends are still widely used in the south of China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Palau and the Solomon Islands, among many other Asian countries. EFE-EPA