Today Vital Strategies, in close cooperation with the People’s Health Foundation, launched Myanmar’s first mass media campaign addressing an age-old habit – chewing betel quid. Working with the Ministry of Health and Sports, the campaign is centered around a radio message and two 30-second TV ads that show in graphic detail the lives of real betel chewers who developed oral cancers from their habit. The message calls on Myanmar’s citizens to stop chewing betel quid. The campaign will run nationwide on national radio and television for six weeks, but the government plans to make betel quid a major focus of its National Health Plan between 2017 and 2021.
While not well known outside of Southeast Asia, betel quid is exceedingly popular in the region, where it is used by over one tenth of the world’s population and leads to thousands of premature deaths.
Betel quid consists of an areca nut, slake lime, and typically some kind of tobacco product wrapped in a chewing betel leaf. Together these ingredients make a chewable mass that gives its user an energized and euphoric feeling.
In Myanmar, and several other countries throughout the region, chewing betel nut is a habit that has been around for generations, and in that time is seen as part of their culture and traditions. Sadly, like other tobacco products, the main ingredients in betel quid are known carcinogens according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Because it is chewed, betel quid causes cancers of the mouth and throat, cancers whose victims often stay out of the public eye because of the prevalence of its deformities on their faces. This leads to even lower public awareness of the link between betel quid and disease where it is used.
This also might help explain why, despite education campaigns about the health effects of betel quid, use has actually increased in 10-39 year-olds in the last few decades. Myanmar particularly struggles with betel quid use, with around 30% of adults and a striking 11% of boys ages 13-15 using smokeless tobacco, typically betel quid.
Vital Strategies’ new campaign seeks to combat resilient betel quid use by using the historically effective tobacco control tactic of the testimonial ad. Ads that depict real people whose tobacco use has led to horrific health consequences in graphic detail have been some of the most effective in fighting the tobacco epidemic. A study by Vital Strategies of campaigns in ten countries found that highly graphic, hard hitting campaigns, featuring the real harms of tobacco, deliver the greatest impact. People connect with victims in personal and emotional ads, and become both more aware of the issue and are more motivated to quit. One such testimonial campaign in Senegal caused a 600% increase in calls to the national smoking quitline.
While betel quid use in Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries exacerbates an already significant tobacco epidemic in the region, campaigns like this one that use tried and true methods curb tobacco usage, are important first steps in bringing health to one of the most populous areas of the world.