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The dangers of smoking tobacco are well known; cigarette packets carry warnings of cancer, hypertension
and gangrene to name just a few of the diseases believed to stem from tobacco.
But out in the tobacco fields of Sukawati in Gianyar regency, Bali, farmers have a very different take on the nicotine rich plant. Here people believe tobacco is good for you, that it prevents tooth decay and kills off oral bacteria.
Nyoman Sutawan, an officer with the Gianyar Agriculture Office, explains that locally grown tobacco, known as tembakau rajang or chopped tobacco is used as a chewing tobacco, not for smoking. It is extremely high in nicotine and it is this that is believed to prevent dental decay.
“People here believe chewing tobacco is good for you, because it kills off tooth worms, or bacteria. The bacteria is killed by the nicotine in the tobacco, so for people who chew tobacco it is rare to see dental decay as their teeth are protected by tobacco. People here [in Indonesia] have been chewing tobacco for a very long time, mostly people who are older than 40 years of age start to chew. It’s very strong and will cause head spins in people not used to it,” says Sutawan of the annual crop sold tax free at local markets.
Tobacco grown across Sukawati is highly regarded, according to Sutawan, who says aficionados from as far away from Java seek this product, believing their teeth will be strengthened by the tobacco.
Local farmers also prize the crop as it offers high returns once a year when rice fields become tobacco plantations.
Sukawati tobacco and rice farmer, 48-year-old Made Lugra, began growing tobacco when he was just 13 years of age and today has 4,500 square meters of tobacco nearly ready for harvest.
“People have been growing tembakau rajang here for more than a hundred years, for a very long time. I started when I was still at school. I plant one crop of tobacco each year, then two crops of rice. I dry the tobacco, then its chopped and sold at the Sukawati market. This tobacco is organic, I use organic fertilizer, but I can still only grow one crop a year of tobacco, because it is very harsh on the soil. If I planted only tobacco all year it would destroy the soil,” says Lugra who yields around 16 klongkong, valued at US$250 per klongkong (traditional weight measure) off his farm.
“On dry weight I can return about $1,200 with tobacco. From rice I return around $900,” says Lugra, a wad of chewing tobacco tucked in his bottom lip.
Like many other farmers and older local people, Lugra is convinced chewing tobacco is healthy.
“Old people like to chew tobacco — it’s better than smoking. It warms the mouth and makes your teeth strong. If you are not used to it the tobacco will make you mabuk [dizzy], but when you are older it protects and strengthens the teeth, so old people rarely have tooth decay,” says Lugra who does have beautifully white front teeth. When asked if he was aware nicotine is believed to cause cancer of the mouth, Lugra appeared surprised.
“I have never seen anyone that chews this tobacco with mouth cancer, no I have never seen that,” says Lugra.
Plastic bags overflowing with chopped, dried local tobacco are found in the ground floor stalls of Sukawati market. One very elderly woman, white-haired and thin as a whip, sits amid her herbs, spices and tobacco waiting for a sale. Nearby a younger woman named Ibu Tri, her stall laden with tobacco and betel nut fixings, measures out 50-cent bags of the chewing tobacco.
“Most of my customers are old people — we’ve been selling tobacco here for years. My mother had this stall before me. At most I would sell eight kilograms a day. Warungs buy their stock here, usually about a kilo of tobacco and other customers buy around 50 cents worth of tobacco,” says Ibu Tri.
Chewing tobacco does not attract a government tax, it is grown in the fields locally, dried, chopped and delivered to the market by the farmers, unlike smoking tobacco that is usually purchased by cigarette factories.
While local legend has it that chewing tobacco is good for you, an Ubud dentist deals only in the facts.
Dr. Ednawati who has a private clinic in Peliatan on Ubud’s outskirts says chewing tobacco is definitely not a healthy habit.
“What I do know is that over long-time use, nicotine [in the tobacco] seals the tooth enamel and people believe the teeth become stronger, but cosmetically this is a problem as it changes the tooth color to brown or black from the nicotine, but still of course this is bad for you, due to gum damage. People say the tobacco warms the mouth, that this is healthy, but there is absolutely no evidence between [chewing] tobacco and stronger teeth. On the contrary, sometimes nicotine can cause cancer and can burn the gums. It is traditionally used, but I don’t think young people today are using it. Nicotine destroys our health and I don’t believe it destroys bacteria in the mouth,” says Ednawati, who views tobacco through the lens of science rather than legend.