Ethiopian Scientist Ermias Dagne Says Chat - Chewing Raises Blood Pressure

By Our Staff Reporter


Professor Ermias Dagne, one of Ethiopia's leading chemists, has disclosed that, apart from the social and economic problems associated with addiction to Chat-chewing, "Chat" may cause hypertension through its active ingredient, called cathinone ("Addis Zemen" Tahsas 14, 1991 E.C). This is contrary to the widely held view by many Ethiopians who believe that Chat chewing may have beneficial effects for persons suffering from hypertension or high blood pressure. In a public lecture that he delivered at the German Cultural Institute, Professor Ermias revealed that this property of Chat as well as the stimulation and satisfaction obtained from chewing it, is derived mainly from its above named active ingredient which is found in larger quantities in the plant's fresh and wet leaves than in dry ones.

As Chat's active substance is weakened by heat and light, leaves of the plant cut and exposed to these elements gradually lose their potency, with the active ingredient deteriorating into a less active compound called "Katin". The type of Chat that is most cherished by Chat chewers is the one that contains its active substance in its most potent variety, namely cathinone.

Experiments carried out in Switzerland on rats and monkeys through the injection of cathinone into their bloodstreams have demonstrated that this substance causes hypertension, increases heart palpitation, dilation of the pupils, high oxygen consumption and causes finally sedation. The effects of cathinone injection on animals are similar to those of the widely known stimulant amphetamine. The effects on addicts include stimulation, euphoria, loss of sleep and appetite and culminating in tiredness. Thirst, constipation and delirium have also been noted.

Scientifically Chat is known as Catha edulis, a name that indicates that the leaves of the plant are edible. The plant is indigenous to Ethiopia and is known by different names in different languages, being called "Chat" in Amharic, "Jimma" in Oromifa,  "Kat" in Arabic, "Mirra" in Swahili and "Abyssinian tea" or "African salad" in colloquial English. Chat had been known long before coffee in the Horn of Africa and in Yemen. Over time, it spread to Kenya, Tanzania and Madagascar, but dissemination to other parts of the world was limited.

Another discussant at the meeting, Ato Tamrat Debrenehe, indicated that over eight varieties of chat are grown in Harar region. He pointed out that although Chat -chewing may now be viewed by addicts as useful and indispensable, it can cause serious health complications and therefore a concerted action to prohibit its use should be considered. Agricultural experts and development agents working in the Hararge region have often pointed out that, because of the economic gains obtained from "Chat" farming, cultivation of the semi-narcotic plant has been expanding considerably, displacing the farming of staple food crops. They have therefore sounded warnings that the unchecked expansion of Chat-farming may in the long ran cause serious economic and social problems. On the other hand, several Chat - growing peasants have indicated that the economic benefits of cultivating Chat are up to three times greater than those that may be obtained from growing food-grains and that rain-fed agriculture, irrigation and manual watering are employed to grow this highly profitable plant.

Personal views about the consequences of Chat-chewing differ among Chat users. Some express their experiences as follows: " We cannot learn anything at school without chewing Chat". "Chat is our other teacher". Others condemn it in no uncertain terms, while still under the sway of its addictive power. They say, "Chat induces wooliness, reduces effective interpersonal communication, reinforces an inflated feeling of cockiness, causes envy, frustration, profligacy and excessive self-consciousness."

However, the effects of Chat - chewing are not as well studied as they deserve. Anecdotal evidence has so far been mixed. As indicated above, thousands of addicts across the country glorify its beneficial effects. Other addicts are not so sure about it all! Non-users are ambivalent about their attitude towards its use, some claiming that chat - chewing people are generally congenial and others arguing that an insidious process of personal decay is evident in those addicted to Chat. Views on Chat are further complicated by the fact that it is a major foreign exchange earner for the country, being in some years next only to coffee and hides and skins.

Our own recommendations on the issue would be that internal studies on Chat should be complemented with similar studies abroad so that a definitive understanding of the ingredients and effects of Chat may be gained. In this respect, we would like to know in which category of narcotics or stimulants Chat may be classified. In other words, what is Chat like? Is it like opium, cannabis, marijuana, cocaine, heroine, amphetamines, etc? Only then can social policy be formulated on the use or non-use of Chat. Until then, we must live with the fact that millions of Ethiopians across the nation and millions more abroad enjoy chewing Chat, regarding the habit as an indispensable aspect of their social life and cultural heritage.


The article originally appeared on Addis Tribune. This version was edited and updated by Dr. E. Dagne, the scientist quoted in the article.