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Qat’s out of the bag, Part II

Qat’s out of the bag, Part II

Yemen’s leafy stimulant is either destroying the country or saving it from disaster. Which is it? Part II of a series

October 26, 2008 8:40 by

Scott MacMillan

At Yemen’s Ministry of Public Health, nutrition department head Nagib Abdulbaqi Ali recalls the minor brouhaha that surfaced in 2002 when he organized the National Conference on Qat. The first major controversy arose over what to call the conference. It was originally supposed to address the qat “problem,” but it became a conference on qat, period. Public outcry about whether the plant needs to be stamped out prompted organizers to give the conference a less critical focus.

Ali describes himself as an occasional chewer. Sitting across the table, his colleague Ali al-Mudhwahi, a qat abstainer, laughs. “It’s not a problem,” says al-Mudhwahi. “It’s a disaster.”

The conference produced a largely neutral paper loaded with notations, references and ambivalence. It noted, for instance, that while some experts say qat is likely carcinogenic, it is also rich with vitamin C.

Arguing that qat produces net health benefits is an uphill battle, though. Ali rattles off a list of problems associated with it, including cancer of the mouth, gingivitis, constipation and hemorrhoids. And those are only the direct effects. Indirect effects include skeletal fluorosis (a bone disease), as aquifers depleted by qat irrigation become excessively rich in mineral fluoride.

As for the supposed increase in energy from chewing qat, Ali says this too is an illusion. Qat slows the digestive system, leaving an energy store in the body that, for afternoon users, is burned off quickly the following morning. So the habitual user stays groggy until about 11 a.m. He then enjoys about two fully functional hours of working time, until he feels the call of the leaf once again. Like marijuana, qat is far more psychologically addictive than it is physically. And according to Ali, it does indeed take its toll on productivity.

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