Abstract Background Approximately 600 million people chew Betel nut, making this practice the fourth most popular oral habit in the world. Arecoline, the major alkaloid present in betel nut is one of the causative agents for precancerous lesions and several cancers of mouth among those who chew betel nut. Arecoline can be detected in the human embryonic tissue and is correlated to low birth weight of newborns whose mothers chew betel nut during pregnancy, suggesting that arecoline can induce many systemic effects. However, few reports exist as to the effects of arecoline in human tissues other than oral cancer cell lines. Furthermore, in any system, virtually nothing is known about the cellular effects of arecoline treatment on membrane associated signaling components of human cancer cells. Results Using the human Ishikawa endometrial cancer cell line, we investigated the effects of arecoline on expression, localization and functional connections between the ZO-1 tight junction protein and the HER2 EGF receptor family member. Treatment of Ishikawa cells with arecoline coordinately down-regulated expression of both ZO-1 and HER2 protein and transcripts in a dose dependent manner. Biochemical fractionation of cells as well as indirect immunofluorescence revealed that arecoline disrupted the localization of ZO-1 to the junctional complex at the cell periphery. Compared to control transfected cells, ectopic expression of exogenous HER2 prevented the arecoline mediated down-regulation of ZO-1 expression and restored the localization of ZO-1 to the cell periphery. Furthermore, treatment with dexamethasone, a synthetic glucocorticoid reported to up-regulate expression of HER2 in Ishikawa cells, precluded arecoline from down-regulating ZO-1 expression and disrupting ZO-1 localization. Conclusion Arecoline is known to induce precancerous lesions and cancer in the oral cavity of betel nut users. The arecoline down-regulation of ZO-1 expression and subcellular distribution suggests that arecoline potentially disrupts cell-cell interactions mediated by ZO-1, which may play a role in arecoline-mediated carcinogenesis. Furthermore, our study has uncovered the dependency of ZO-1 localization and expression on HER2 expression, which has therefore established a new cellular link between HER2 mediated signaling and apical junction formation involving ZO-1.