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The betel palm, a species of palm tree found primarily in Asian countries, yields a seed known as a betel nut. Natives of the Asian and Indian countries where this tree is found use the nut much like those in Western countries use chewing tobacco or snuff. It is shaved or cut into slivers for easier chewing and is often mixed with local spices or tobacco for a more appealing flavor. Some producers wrap the ground-up betel nut and spice mixture in a fresh betel leaf and sell it in local shops.
Unlike the male-dominated world of tobacco chewing, however, a number of women in Asian countries enjoy chewing the betel nut. It contains chemicals similar to nicotine, which means that the user experiences a similar narcotic effect. Field workers and other rural inhabitants often chew it not only for its mild painkilling effects, but also for appetite suppression and digestive assistance. Betel nut is often marketed as a homeopathic cure for indigestion and is also used in some Asian toothpastes and anti-parasite medications.
The use of the betel nut has become a concern for many governments in Asia. There is compelling medical evidence that habitual chewing can cause a number of forms of cancer, especially in the mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach. Chewers also spit out the bright red remnants of the load onto public streets, creating a nuisance and raising concerns about sanitation. Several attempts at prohibiting it, or at least controlling its sale, have not been especially successful.
Another potentially dangerous situation connected with the betel nut industry is the sexual exploitation of minors. In an effort to boost sales and attract customers, local shops often employ attractive young women to promote their wares. These women and girls, called "betel nut beauties," are known for their skimpy outfits and overtly sexual sales pitches. Recent laws prohibit the use of nudity or near-nudity to sell the nuts, and many of the beauties are under the age of consent. Working in this job is sometimes viewed as an introduction to more hardcore jobs in the sex industry, including prostitution and pornography.
Betel nut is not illegal in the United States, but very few sources outside of certain Asian grocery stores import even the medicinal version. Some describe the flavor as peppery, while others say it is impossibly bitter. Mixing it with spices or tobacco seems to improve its taste, but flavored betel nut is not always embraced in certain Asian countries. Long-term chewing can stain the user's teeth black and create a number of health problems requiring serious medical intervention.