Betel nut black market booms in Australia as experts warn of its devastating health impacts

Health experts in Australia have warned against the hazardous consequences of chewing an illegal tropical nut- areca nut, commonly also known as buai or betel nut.

Owning to oral cancer symptoms caused by the product, it has been prohibited under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code and considered a schedule 4 poison, according to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation. The Queensland Police Service said one person had been charged for possessing betel nut in 2019.

Often mixed with lime powder (calcium hydroxide), it produces an addictive paste that stains the teeth and mouth a vibrant red. Sources however suggest that the nut has been illegally traded in growing quantities across the country. According to Australian Dental Association oral medicine specialist Professor Michael McCullough, the product was easily available in Melbourne, where there has also been a rise in the number of dental symptoms associated with the product.

“What we’ve noticed over the past five years is a beginning trend in the risk of oral cancer,” McCullough said.

He added that the cases were present in large numbers especially among people migrating from other countries where betel nut was chewed traditionally, such as Myanmar and India.

One of Australia’s closest geographical neighbours, Papua New Guinea, has recorded the world’s highest rate of mouth cancer due to the prevalence of betel nut chewing.

Professor McCullough remarked that there was more awareness about the health impacts and addictive properties of nicotine as compared to that of betel nut.

“It is very concerning. If [the trend] does continue we think it will compound the rise in cases of oral cancer in Australia,” he said.