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NOUMEA, New Caledonia (February 15, 2001 - Oceania Flash/SPC)---The kava craze has steadily grown in New Caledonia since the inception of the first "nakamals" (kava bars) in the French territory during the early 1990s.

There are now an estimated 100 kava bars in the capital, Nouméa, and in rural New Caledonia, including the Loyalty group of islands.

What has become a very lucrative business is currently being monitored very closely by local authorities, investors and health officials.

Just like in its homeland of Vanuatu, kava is also consumed from sunset onwards in New Caledonia.

And like in Vanuatu, the nakamal is supposed to be a place where lights and voice volume are low, thus contributing to the overall relaxing effect of the mildly anesthetic beverage.

Kava is made from crushed roots of the Piper Methysticum, a member of the pepper family.

But in New Caledonia, the phenomenon has taken a new social dimension.

Kava bar owners often say this is one of the only places in the French territory where all ethnic groups socialize, regardless of race or social background.

"Here, everyone is at the same level," a nakamal manager said in downtown Nouméa.

"They can be business owners, doctors, students or workers. It doesn't matter. They all want one thing : relax after a day's work in a friendly place. Then they head back home," he said.

"It's a little bit like the French bistro you find in France. This is where you can find the 'regulars' to discuss around a drink," a consumer commented.

Others drink kava for its anti-stress properties and to lose weight.

"Business people are more aware of the economic impact of kava: an estimated US$ 7 million in 1999, only for the Nouméa establishments," said French Research Institute for Development (IRD) ethnopharmacologist Pierre Caballion.

But health authorities also have an eye on the kava industry in New Caledonia.

"All nakamals will have to comply with existing health regulations by 2002," said Nouméa's Health and Sanitation Department head Dr. Pierre Bacqué.

He stressed respecting the Oceanian culture does not mean basic hygiene rules must be disregarded.

"The kava shells (from which consumers drink one after the other) are only rinsed in water of dubious cleanliness. The equipment used to crush the kava is not always well cleaned. In a word, intoxication risks are real," he said.

He advocates better hygiene through proper washing of the shells, clean crushing equipment, decent public toilet facilities nearby and running water.

"We're not asking them to put tiles everywhere on the floor. But after all, nakamals are public drinking establishments, like other bars, so they, too, must respect the existing legislation," he said.

"A new piece of legislation was passed in New Caledonia in 1998, but it allowed some time for the nakamals owners to adapt. By 2002, we will start getting tougher," he added.

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