A gross, little-known fact about me: I’ve tried chewing tobacco.
I was a junior in college, and was in the process of pledging a “Business fraternity.” It was the last night of pledging (otherwise known as “retreat,” otherwise known as “24 hours of hell”) and a junior named Nick forced me to try a pouch of spearmint SKOL.
Truthfully, it wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever tasted (or, sadly, the worst thing I experienced on retreat) but it was a flavor that stayed with me forever, and somehow comes back every time I think too much about it.
Walking down the street in Yangon, that familiar taste popped right back into my mouth when every person I saw was chewing on the Burmese version of “dip.”
It’s a special kind of tobacco called “Betel Leaves,” which are basically little home-rolled packets of tobacco that give you a buzz when you chomp on them. They require a special, but simple process to make, and there are “rollers” putting them together up and down pretty much every street in Yangon. The rollers take a leaf, squeeze lime and chili powder on it, then put tobacco and sometimes opium in it. Then, they roll it up into an easily-chewable little package called “quids.” It’s incredibly popular in the city, and even more-so in the countryside (people also use it in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, but from what I’ve seen it’s most popular here). It can be incredibly addicting — especially when it has drugs in it — and turns your teeth black. In the Northern tribal area, people’s teeth are so destroyed that they call people with white smiles “dog teeth” because they’re not used to seeing anything like it.
According to CNN, around 600 million people worldwide are thought to chew betel quids, making them the fourth most commonly used psychoactive substance after tobacco, alcohol and caffeinated drink (side note — who knew “caffeinated drinks” were considered a psychoactive substance??). They’re often used by drivers trying to stay awake, or farmers working long hours. The packets cost around 10 cents for a pack of three, so they’re a lot cheaper than cigarettes though not necessarily better healthwise: In addition to the fact that they turn people’s teeth momentarily red, and after a while, permanently black, chewing on Betel is actually a very dangerous habit. Long-term use can lead to cancer.