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SUVA, Fiji Islands (January 14, 2002 - PINA Nius Online)---France has suspended the sale of products and preparations containing kava as the crisis for Pacific Islands exporters grows.

France's government agency responsible for the safety of health products said its decision was based on various factors.

They included the recent health concerns linked to kava from German and Swiss authorities.

The agency noted that to date these may link kava to one death and four liver transplants.

As a result, sale of preparations containing kava now is suspended.

The only exception will be homoeopathic treatments in which the kava is diluted to very low levels.

The French ban could have a major impact on Vanuatu, which exports kava to the neighboring French territory of New Caledonia as well as to European pharmaceutical companies.

Fiji is also a major exporter to pharmaceutical companies.

Kava is extracted from the root of a species of pepper plant called Piper methysticum, which thrives in the Pacific Islands.

Tablets containing kava are mostly used in Europe and North America to reduce tension, minor or moderate anxiety, stress, and restlessness.

Pacific exporters have called for their governments to conduct studies to refute the health scare claims coming from Europe.

They said this does not relate to the experience in the Pacific Islands where kava is a major social drink.

German and Swiss authorities said they had recorded about 30 cases of hepatitis among people who had taken kava-based products.

The German organization, the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices, known by its acronym BfArM, an authority on herbal medicine, was one of the first to raise concerns.

In 1997 there were 146,000 doctors’ prescriptions made for one kava product alone in Germany. Each prescription would average 50 kava tablets, so the size of the German herbal market is huge.

The most popular kava product in Germany is Latam, made by Schwabe. The organization is growing 'Two Dei' kava in Vanuatu's Santo for use in pharmaceutical products, the Vanuatu Trading Post newspaper reported.

The newspaper has reported in depth on the health scare, highlighting the impact it could have on Vanuatu's export trade.

It reported pharmaceutical companies responded that in some cases patients were taking other drugs as well as pharmaceutical kava and there was no proof kava caused liver disease.

One was quoted as saying: "Kava has been safely used in traditional cultures in the South Pacific for its relaxing qualities for over 1,000 years. There has been little scientific evidence to suggest a potential liver safety problem with the appropriate uses of kava. There is no documented mechanism correlating the chemistry of kava to liver toxicity."

One reason for the liver problems may be in the way the kava is prepared by the pharmaceutical companies, the Vanuatu Trading Post said. The processing could be a factor, according to experts.

In Port Vila, Vincent Lebot, an acknowledged world expert on kava, told the Vanuatu Trading Post: "I am concerned that pharmaceutical products are being called kava when they are not kava. It is like putting wine into a pill and calling it wine. It isn't.

"The pharmaceutical product is prepared by scientists without knowing the cultural significance of the way kava should be drunk. The dry root is mixed with poisonous solvents to extract lactones and they are calling it kava. They are damaging the name of kava and now Vanuatu will suffer.

"We knew that this would happen. There are a lot of poor products on the market called kava made with solvents."

Mr. Lebot also disputed the German findings, telling Vanuatu Trading Post: "What other drugs have the patients been using as well as kava and for how long? Vanuatu needs to safeguard its product urgently as Australia has called kava dangerous because of abuse by Aborigines.

"If New Caledonia bans it as a result of France following in German footsteps we will lose export sales of 120 tons of kava a year to Nouméa."

In Vanuatu, there has never been any major health study undertaken by the government on kava despite a huge percentage of the population regularly drinking it, the Vanuatu Trading Post said.

The kava drunk in nakamals in Vanuatu is up to five times the strength of kava sold in herbal tablets and capsules over the counter in drug stores overseas, it said.

One doctor advised the Vanuatu Trading Post that there was no abnormality in disease of the liver in Vanuatu other than a higher than average number of people with cancer of the liver due to hepatitis B. He believes that given the large number of kava drinkers in Vanuatu, it would be noticeable if liver disease were common.

In Fiji, prominent kava dealer Sunil Karan, of Ram Karan Kava Dealers Limited, urged the government to get experts to test local people and prove kava alone cannot cause liver disorder.

Kava dealers want the ministry to clear the air on the issue quickly before the industry nose-dives. The withdrawal of kava pills by just three European companies is likely to cause an over F$ 5 million (US$ 2,193,250) loss a year in foreign revenue, Fiji's Daily Post said.

Mr. Karan told the Daily Post that the government should invite European scientists to carry out tests on local people, who consume more kava than those in Europe.

"Our agents informed us of the withdrawal last week, with the companies blaming the numerous cases of liver disorder in Europe," Mr. Karan said.

"We believe that tests should be carried out to clear the air and save the industry from collapsing."

He said he suspected the chemical composition of the pills to be the real cause, as kava alone hasn't given any trouble in both Fiji and Vanuatu, where people have consumed the drink for centuries.

Mr. Karan told the Daily Post: "I have been in the kava export business for over 10 years now and know of local people who consume kava more than they eat and yet there has been no cases of liver disorder related to the drink so far."

Mr. Karan said the onus is on the Fiji Government to see that the industry keeps its viability, as a lot of jobs are bound to be lost once more companies stop using kava.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: 

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