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Yemen’s Qat Addiction Worsens

Mustapha Rouis's picture
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YemenYemen is mostly in the news these days for its political transition. This has obscured a longstanding issue, the chewing of qat, which has equally important consequences for the country.
 
Qat is a mild narcotic leaf popular in Yemen and the Horn of Africa.  Excessive qat-chewing has disastrous impacts on health, education, and productivity. We illustrated this for Yemen in a report we prepared in 2007 (see here).  The situation today is probably just as bad, if not worse.  So it may be worth highlighting the key findings of that report again:
 
Qat consumption is ubiquitous in Yemen: Until the 1960s, qat-chewing was an occasional pastime, mainly for the rich. Now, it is chewed several days a week by a large proportion of the Yemeni population. We conducted a survey in 2007 that showed 72 percent of Yemeni men and 33 percent of women chewed qat regularly, some every day.  Many started as teenagers, with first use occurring between 16 and 24 years old on average. Most started because of peer pressure. In our survey, 66 percent of men and 72 percent of women chewed qat because “all my friends and family chew”.  
 
Widespread qat chewing has grave consequences: Qat use is linked to child malnutrition and food insecurity since household spending on it takes priority over spending on basic foodstuffs and essential medicines. The adverse health effects of qat include high blood-pressure, under-weight children (when pregnant women chew qat), cancer (from consuming pesticide residues), and dental disease. Consumers spend an average of nearly 10 percent of their income on it, and the physical act of chewing the drug requires several hours a day. The culture of passing time chewing qat for much of the afternoon is inimical to the development of a productive work force, with as much as one-quarter of usable working hours allocated to qat chewing.
 
Qat use hampers productivity and directly contributes to poverty: The enormous amount of time spent chewing qat is time that in most other countries is typically spent in productive activities.  Some 36 percent of users spend 2-4 hours per day chewing, 35 percent spend 4-6 hours a day, and an astonishing 22 percent spend more than 6 hours a day chewing qat.  Most users believe that qat enhances their immediate work performance, but about a third report that the day after chewing qat, their work performance is impaired. The overwhelming majority of qat users are aware that it is costly, and that it has a detrimental effect on their ability to afford basic food, medicine, and other essentials. Some 94 percent of non-chewers and 77 percent of chewers reported that qat has a negative effect on the family budget. Tragically, almost a fifth of all qat users are forced into debt to finance their chewing habit. 
 
Most users believe that qat is bad for them: More than 70 percent of respondents described qat chewing as a “bad habit” that is also bad for Yemen’s economy and bad for the nation’s image. Users want to “kick the habit” but find they cannot. Either because of social pressure, or because of psychological dependency resulting from prolonged use, users do not feel that they can stop using qat on their own. Some 53 percent of male and 61 percent of female respondents declared that government intervention is necessary to address the qat problem. 
 
Qat plays a major economic role in Yemen: In 2007, it accounted for around 6 percent of GDP, 10 percent of consumption, one-third of agricultural GDP, and provided employment for one in every seven working Yemeni.  As the predominant cash crop, the income it plays a vital role in rural economies.  But it also depletes scarce water resources and crowds out production of essential food crops and agriculture exports. A combination of measures, including leadership, public awareness campaign, and social and economic policies, is what is needed to curb the widespread use of qat.
 

Comments

Submitted by Andrew Stone on

Very good to remind people of this major challenge, but is there any political will or social consensus for change? When we raised these issues in the 2005/6 Investment Climate Assessment as a long-term economic liability, we were told by counterparts that qat use was ingrained in local culture and its harm exaggerated. At the time, qat cultivation was believed to consume a third of Yemen's scarce groundwater, to reduce productivity by 25% and to consume between on quarter and one third of poor family's incomes. Another aspect is corruption -- qat is a nickname for bribes and a destination for many informal payments to officials. Poorly paid officials with an expensive daily habit is a poor recipe for integrity.

It would be interesting to see whether there are other countries with their own 'native' drug problems, and what role peer pressure plays. It's also interesting to note that the poorer elements of society probably started doing this to copy the wealthier parts of society, just as baby names follow that trend.

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