Suu Kyi warns ‘Avoid betel chewing so you don’t regret your life choices’

Posters from Myanmar’s new anti-betel campaign.
Posters from Myanmar’s new anti-betel campaign.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has lent her voice to a national media campaign to combat tobacco consumption, including the enduring habit of chewing betel quid, known locally as kunyar.

“Among the ASEAN member countries, Myanmar has the highest occurrence of betel quid consumption. This is a significant threat to public health,” Suu Kyi wrote in a statement presented at the campaign’s launch ceremony in Naypyidaw yesterday. The statement was read out by information minister Dr. Pe Myint.

“More than seven million people in Myanmar consume tobacco products and betel quid every day, and tobacco related deaths in the country number over 60,000 annually,” she wrote. “To fight this trend and to ensure a healthy life, I urge all the Myanmar people to avoid consumption of tobacco products and to promote the idea of ‘Avoid betel chewing so you don’t regret your life choices’ as a national duty.”

Betel chewing has officially been prohibited at offices, hospitals, schools, and public areas in Myanmar since May 2016, but the policy has done little to influence people’s behavior. To remedy that, the Ministry of Health and Sports and the People’s Health Foundation partnered with the global health organization Vital Strategies, which specializes in strategic communication campaigns.

The campaign will consist of public posters and radio announcements that will be broadcast on Cherry FM, Mandalay FM, and City FM. It also includes two 30-second TV spots featuring betel chewers with advanced cancer, which will be shown for six weeks on MRTV, MRTV-4, DVB, MWD Documentary, and in 22 Mingalar cinemas.

The videos were produced by Young Guns Media, a Yangon-based creative agency.

Speaking at yesterday’s launch event, People’s Health Foundation president Dr. U Than Sein stressed the urgency of the campaign: “The death toll is higher in Myanmar than […] in other low-income countries. About 30 percent of adults over 15 years use smokeless tobacco or chew betel quid in our country, which is a major cause of oral and laryngeal cancers. This problem needs to be addressed urgently.”

Health and sports minister Dr. Myint Htwe said the anti-betel campaign is part of the ministry’s National Health Plan, 2017-2021, which aims to curb non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Myanmar.

“NCDs account for more than 40 percent of all deaths in Myanmar,” the minister said at the launch event. “A large percentage of these deadly conditions is caused by tobacco use and chewing betel quid, in packages called kunyar. This campaign will help to warn Myanmar’s people about the real harms of chewing betel quid.”

According to the organizers, the campaign is modeled on similar campaigns in India, Thailand, and Taiwan, and it is the first national health campaign in Myanmar to feature real-world victims of oral cancer.

“[We] recognize the patients featured in the campaign, whose stories show the deadly truth about betel chewing,” said Sandra Mullin, a senior vice president at Vital Strategies. “Alongside policy action from the government to reduce tobacco use and betel chewing, their bravery will help others to avoid the same fate.”

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