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【Taiwan News】Betel nut tax revenue should contribute to land fund: COA

Taipei, Oct. 12 (CNA) Taiwan's top official in charge of agriculture said Monday that a proposed betel nut tax, if levied, should be used to facilitate land conservation and ecological protection.

Fielding questions at a Legislative Yuan committee meeting, Council of Agriculture (COA) Minister Chen Wu-hsiung said that if a health tax on betel nuts is imposed, a proportion of the resulting revenue should be put toward a sustainable land development fund that is being planned under a draft bill to help facilitate land conservation and ecological protection.

Chen made the remarks in response to ruling Kuomintang Legislator Ting Shou-chung, who charged that land leased by the COA for forestation has for long been illegally used to cultivate betel nuts and that the COA should contribute part of any betel nut tax revenue to the sustainable land development fund, as a means of "righting that wrong." Ting pointed out that betel nuts are grown on over 50,000 hectares of land around the country, making it Taiwan's biggest cash crop.

Ting accused the businessmen of using land owned by the government for betel nut plantations, which have eroded the land and made it mudslide-prone because of the very shallow root system of the betel palm.

He added that betel nut production and sales are worth NT$20 billion (US$620 million) a year and that chewing the carcinogenic nuts damages the health of users, causing government expenditure on health care to increase sharply. According to the Department of Health (DOH) , around 5,000 new oral cancer cases are reported each year, with an average of 2,300 people dying of the disease every year, primarily as a result of chewing betel nut.

Responding to Ting's charges, Chen said land leased by the COA to the private sector totals over 70,000 hectares at present, only 3,000 hectares of which were discovered being used "irregularly." "The COA has been cutting the area of irregular usage by a rate of about 500 hectares each year," Chen added.

In related news, the KMT legislative caucus nixed a proposal by the Department of Health (DOH) the previous week to impose a health tax on betel nut, saying it would hurt the livelihoods of some grassroots residents.

KMT legislative caucus whip Lu Hsueh-chang praised the DOH's tax proposal, which is aimed at protecting the public's health over the long run, as a good idea.

But he said that the livelihoods of the people, particularly those at the grassroots level, should be taken into consideration when a new law is initiated.

"At present it is inappropriate and unnecessary to impose a betel nut tax," Lu argued.

There are approximately 1.37 million betel nut chewers in Taiwan, according to the latest DOH survey.

Chao Kun-yu, a DOH bureau chief said that until the betel nut tax plan matures, the DOH will accelerate its oral cancer screening campaign, as 90 percent of Taiwan's oral and esophageal cancer patients are betel nut chewers.

(By Deborah Kuo)

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