Taki MaiTaki Mai

By Zane Yoshida

There was big news last month that will have profound effects for the kava industry as a whole and potentially boost the welfare of many Pacific island farmers, who depend on kava for their livelihood.

As reported by the American Botanical Council, a German court has ruled that the kava ban imposed 12 years ago by the German drug regulatory authority (the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices) should be reversed.

On June 11th a German Administrative Court in Cologne ruled that, based on the available data ‘there was no justification for the German government’s ban of kava medicinal products’.

The court went even further and said that the benefit-risk ratio of kava medicinal products was ‘positive’.

Because of this, German kava products have been restored to the same status as before the ban, which was affected in June 2002.

The history of the European kava ban

By the year 2000, the first reports began to emerge of liver damage associated with taking kava(Piper methysticum) extracts in Germany.The following year kava was banned in Europe and the UK due to concerns over liver toxicity and in Canada a ‘stop order’ was applied to it.

Kava-containing products were associated with at least 25 reports of liver damage including hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver failure, and death.

This was a big shock to the kava industry. As the American Botanical Council describes:

“By 2001, the overall retail sales of medicinal products containing kava had reached approximately 10% of that of benzodiazepines (conventional pharmaceutical anti-anxiety drugs), with a total of 450 million daily doses sold between 1991 and 2000, and no significant risks were observed.It therefore came as a surprise when, in 1999 and 2000, there were case reports of potential liver toxicity associated with ingestion of kava products…”

Experts within the kava industry pointed out that the problems of toxicity were never encountered in traditional preparations of kava and that they may have resulted from ethanol and acetone-based extraction methods, or different parts of the kava plant being used (only the root is used in traditional preparations).

Despite 85 different scientific studies and many theories on kava toxicity, there was no agreement on the cause. A 2009 University of Queensland world-first clinical trial even showed that a traditional, water-soluble extract of kava was safe and effective in treating anxiety.

In November 2008 the EU announced that it was lifting its kava trade ban, but the ban remained in Germany until the recent court ruling.

The long-ranging effects of the ban

Many Pacific island nations depend greatly on kava exports for their livelihood and the ban seriously impacted revenues. The knock-on effects seriously harmed the revenues of local farmers.

The major kava producing and exporting countries include Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, and Samoa.  The Fiji Times reported in 2008:

“Fiji was earning close to $100 million per annum since 1998 prior to the ban while in 2003 IKEC registered a combined claim of ‘loss of revenue’ of around $US200 million per annum for the Pacific Island producers.”

Reaction to the lifting of the ban

The impact of the lifting of the ban goes far beyond Germany. Nations that had been holding off on full acceptance of kava while the ban was in place, will now feel empowered to lower the barriers of entry and the market should open up considerably. There are no longer any excuses.

Rick Kingston, president of regulatory and scientific affairs at SafetyCall International said ‘This is very important news for the market in the United States.’ He added that the response of the German authorities to the question of liver toxicity had been ‘disproportionate’ and that it was most likely ‘politically driven on a number of fronts.’

This will help the Pacific island nations like Fiji, which have been fighting hard to restore the status of kava to its previous heights around the world; the positive effects on their economies will be very welcome.

It should be noted that the court ruling in Germany has been appealed by the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices, so the kava debate could yet still continue.

Time to enjoy kava!

The American Botanical Council describes kava like this:

“The roots of kava are made into a recreational relaxing drink. It has no addiction potential or significant intoxicating effects, despite its genus name “methysticum” (Greek for “intoxicating”)….the relative safety of kava products is one of the reasons for its popularity in Europe, where kava extracts have benefitted from official marketing authorizations as medicinal products for the treatment of stress-related anxiety.”

Kava has been put on the earth to be enjoyed – just as Pacific islanders have been doing for centuries. Now the German ban has been reversed, more people around the world will be able to enjoy the relaxing and calming effects of kava beverages. Bula!

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German Kava Ban Lifted At Last