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Kratom Versus Tobacco by Professor Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

Kratom versus Tobacco:Get the priority right about the dangers of these plants

Recently, a little known leaf allegedly used by addicts to complement their craving habits was thrust to fame. It is the ketum leaf, also known locally as daun biak.

The leaf is mainly found in the northern part of the country and in neighbouring Thailand, where it is called kratom.

Scientifically the plant is identified as Mitragyna speciosa Korth, a tree of about 30 metres tall, with dark shiny green leaves and yellowish coloured flower.
 
It contains an active compound called mytragynine, said to have a stimulating and/or sedative effects on the brain. It is this effect that is causing concern among some people and the authorities. Some have equated the effects to that of ganja and even morphine. But there is no convincing evidence regarding this. It looks like daun biak is in a class of its own.

Studies conducted at the Universiti Sains Malaysia indicated that the active compound can also cause effects like dryness of mouth, constipation, loss of appetite and increased urination. Some of these effects could be useful in medical treatment but others could be regarded as harmful effects. There were also reports that some of the effects can lead to some addiction, though users are usually not rendered unproductive, unlike other drug addiction.

According to some herbalists however, the plant is not all bad. For decades some documented traditional uses include reducing body temperature, for de-worming, diarrhoea and cure for stomach ailments. An Internet source suggests that it could also be used to treat high blood pressure, diabetes and for tiredness.

Like all other traditional plants with many potential uses, pokok biak is legally grown; in some cases an ornamental tree. Given the recent spate of events, it is possible that this will change if the authorities decide to ban it. Others insist that the plant be immediately chopped down and destroyed which could mean a loss in our biodiversity, especially when the species is uniquely found in this part of the world.

But there is an extreme irony in all these hue and cry when one considers another, no less controversial, leafy plant locally known as tembakau or tobacco.

Like the biak, tembakau is also legally grown and consumed. More importantly both are addictive and could endanger health. The difference is, tembakau is evidently more hazardous than biak.

For example, tembakau has been documented to cause other serious and harmful effects, namely a variety of cancers, especially lung cancer, the major cause of death of tobacco-related disease. It can also cause serious cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, yet another cause of death. When smoked the fume released is equally deadly.

More than the addiction associated with tembakau is likened to that of cocaine and heroin. This is not the case for biak.

Despite all these, most ironic of it all is the way tobacco commands respect in this country. For example, rather than calling for its destruction, the authorities seem to be protecting the tembakau plant and the industry based on it. Nationwide, more than 15,750 hectares of land are being planted with this obnoxious plant, and the produce subsidised. Just late week, tobacco producers got a major boost in the form of a RM22.5 million special credit assistance from the government.

This is expected to increase production to no less than nine million kilogrammes this year, translated to mean millions of tobacco-related deaths.

So why the preoccupation with biak, if the even more dangerous tembakau is given so much protection. What justification can we offer to ban and destroy the sparsely grown biak, mostly wild, when thousands of hectares of tobacco plant are being cultivated. Some may cite that the Thais have banned biak, and that we should follow suit. Unknown to many however, Thailand too has a very tightly regulated tobacco market. Should we not consider emulating this first? Moreover, so far there is no known biak related death documented in this country compared to the millions attributed to tobacco. If it is the health of our citizens that we are trying to protect then we should get our priority right. Whatever is decided for biak, the same treatment must be accorded to tobacco simultaneously. Lest we look a nation of fools!

This article was published on Monday 07 June, 2004.
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