HEALTH FEARS BREW TENSIONS OVER PACIFIC'S RELAXING DRINK OF KAVA

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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (January 16, 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---A relaxing brew drunk throughout the Pacific is leaving authorities feeling a little tense after medical fears look set to spill their share of a multi-million dollar new age remedy industry.

Kava, depending on where it is drunk, offers all the refreshment of swallowing used mouthwash or an astringently wooden muddy slime.

Nevertheless, its enduring appeal has persuaded western pharmaceutical companies to package the drink's ingredients into tablets, offering a new age cure for anxiety and pressure and tapping a 100 million US dollar market.

But, in the last couple of weeks, authorities across Europe and North America have sounded alarm bells over the pills, banning them amid fears that they may cause liver damage.

The moves have provoked mounting dismay in the Pacific as authorities fear that what was to have been an economic miracle cure, is now leaving them with bitter taste.

This month the United States Food and Drug Administration announced an inquiry into the possibility that kava can damage the liver.

Authorities in Britain, France, Switzerland and Germany have also withdrawn the drug over fears it causes hepatitis.

In New Caledonia, Yann Barguil, a biopharmacist and researcher at Nouméa Gaston Bourret hospital, told Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes that they have detected three cases of hepatitis linked to kava.

"We believe the active properties of this plant, the kava lactones, have an effect on the liver's enzymes," he told the daily. "And one person in about 170,000 has in his/her liver a type of enzyme that, if combined with kava, could produce a toxic enzyme."

But Kava expert Vincent Lebot has scotched the claims, telling the Vanuatu Trading Post newspaper that the tablets should not be called kava.

"It is like putting wine into a pill and calling it wine. It isn't," he said.

"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’re calling it kava."

The Fiji Daily Post said that country's five million US dollar a year trade was at risk.

Sunil Karan of Ram Karan Kava Dealers Ltd. said the Fiji government should invite European scientists to carry out tests on local people, who consume more kava than those in Europe.

"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."

The kava drink is derived from kava plant (Piper methysticum), both having ceremonial status in Pacific traditions. The drink is mainly made from the crushed roots. In some places the root is chewed first then spat into a common mixing bowl, while more typically it is pounded with stones and mixed in a large wooden bowl.

Its strength and consistency varies widely across the Pacific -- from thick green slime in Micronesia to dullish gray water little stronger than tea in Fiji.

In Fiji a "grog" bowl is kept in many offices, and even at Parliament, and the drink has crossed the country's racial divide with Indians being big consumers in Fiji and in New Zealand.

Medical fears are nothing new, however. Kava, once reserved for chiefs in formal ceremonies, has long been associated with devastating social consequences across the Pacific.

In Samoa a newspaper attacked so-called "ava sessions," saying people were "sitting around a ava bowl shouting abuses at each other."

New Zealand Alcohol Healthwatch spokesman Lipi Lafaiki has warned that kava is becoming a serious health problem and said its worst impact was in Fiji.

"It has gone from ceremonial use to men sitting cross-legged and binge drinking kava up to 12 hours a day."

Kiribati, which has no kava tradition, is now seeing people spend money on buying Fiji kava, for consumption during daylong sessions.

"They say kava is better than beer because in the case of beer it causes fighting, but with kava you just want to enjoy the company of other people," Department of Social Welfare head Nanimatang Karoua says.

Internet chat rooms hint at the problems. One woman complained that Tonga's "faikava" sessions were destroying families.

Another wrote: "All too often I see the fathers leaving their wives and children at home while they sit beside the tou'a (woman who mixes kava).

"I often hear stories of the types of conversation that take place at these faikavas and roll my eyes in disgust."

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/  Website: http://www.michaelfield.org 

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