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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Kava warnings cripple state's industry

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Yesterday's FDA warning on kava may hurt growers and processors of the herbal supplement even more.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Hawai'i's fledgling kava industry took another hit yesterday when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an official warning to consumers that the popular herbal supplement may be linked to serious liver injury.

The FDA said it still hasn't concluded whether kava, or its use with other supplements, is to blame for problems reported in Germany and other European countries. But the FDA said it decided to alert consumers because of the seriousness of the side effects and actions in other countries.

Hawai'i's kava, or 'awa, industry was worth an estimated $120,000 and involved more than 50 farms during a study two years ago by the state Department of Agriculture. But sales fell after a German ban on kava last year. In recent months, Switzerland and France also have halted sales; Britain has suspended sales; and Canada has issued a consumer warning.

Neither yesterday's warning by the FDA nor the fears of other countries offer much hope to an industry that had been putting a modern-day spin on a root that has hundreds of years of history throughout the Pacific.

"The industry has basically been destroyed by this problem," said Jay Ram, president of Agrinom LLC, which processes and exports kava from the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island.

Agrinom is Hawai'i's biggest kava exporter, according to Ed Johnston, project coordinator of the Association for Hawaiian 'Awa, and Germany was its No. 1 customer.

During the peak of kava's popularity last year, Agrinom was selling 30,000 pounds of dried kava per month to Germany for $200,000 in sales. Ram had also invested $300,000 to build a drying and processing plant for kava.

"All of our sales went to Germany, and all of that has stopped," Ram said.

Cliff Souza, who sells kava throughout Hawai'i and to the Mainland via his Web site, has found plenty of kava bargains from the 20 farmers he deals with. Where kava root once sold for $9 a pound, today he can buy it for $1.

"There's tons of it available," he said. "But this report is going to hit hard."

Yesterday, the FDA advised consumers of the potential risk "of severe liver injury associated with the use of kava-containing dietary supplements."

"Although liver damage appears to be rare, FDA believes consumers should be informed of this potential risk," the statement said.

"Kava-containing products have been associated with liver-related injuries — including hepatitis, cirrhosis and liver failure — in over 25 reports of adverse events in other countries. Four patients required liver transplants. In the U.S., FDA has received a report of a previously healthy young female who required liver transplantation, as well as several reports of liver-related injuries."

"Given these reports," the agency said, "persons who have liver disease or liver problems, or persons who are taking drug products that can affect the liver, should consult a physician before using kava-containing supplements."

The FDA urged consumers and healthcare professionals to report any related problems by calling (800) 332-1088, or through its Web site, www.fda.gov/medwatch.

Kava growers, advocates and retailers around the Islands have been criticizing the reports coming primarily out of Germany about the pill form of kava. They say that closer review of the cases shows that most of the patients also were drinking alcohol or taking medications linked to liver damage.

"There is a lot of conflicting information and scattered reports, and people want to warn people about problems," said Jonathan Yee, who grows kava on the Big Island and O'ahu and sells it to Long's Drugs, the Bishop Museum and other major outlets. "But we have to base things on scientific fact."

The more traditional form of kava is ground up and drunk as a liquid that numbs the tongue and lips.

"This has been taken over centuries, if not thousands of years, and we haven't received any reports of it causing epidemic liver problems," said Yee, who also teaches about kava use and is the owner of the Hawaiian Kava Center. "If there were problems, we would have seen evidence by now. But there is no evidence."

Kava, or 'awa, is one of Hawai'i's oldest crops and was introduced by the Islands' earliest inhabitants along with taro, said H.C. Bittenbender, extension specialist for the University of Hawai'i's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources who coordinates research for kava and coffee.

In the last few years, Damian Paul, owner of The Source Natural Food Store in Kailua, oversaw a two-year run when "kava was flying off the shelves."

The natural food business "is a very trendy industry," Paul said. "But as the owner of a health food store, I would never sell anything that was unhealthy."

Paul sold kava in its root form, as a liquid tincture, in capsules and in tea bags. At the height of its popularity, kava in its many forms was selling at a clip of $400 worth per week. Lately, Paul's kava sales have dropped to about $100 per week.

Sales of kava, in either liquid or powder form, have held steady at the six Down To Earth stores on O'ahu and Maui despite negative news coming out of Europe, said Rock Riggs, the chain's community issues director.

"To me it doesn't appear there's any new news with the FDA advisory," Riggs said. "Our basic feeling is that if you do have existing liver problems or you're taking drugs that have known adverse effects on the liver, of course they should not be taking kava kava."

Today, 99 percent of the Hawai'i kava industry is focused on exporting processed kava to be manufactured as a dietary or health supplement, Bittenbender said. Probably less than 1 percent of Hawai'i's kava production is dedicated for drinking in the traditional way, he said.

So far, the warnings about processed kava have not severely hurt business at the Hale Noa kava bar, which opened on Kapahulu Avenue 2ý years ago.

Owner Jason Keoni Verity has seen everybody from curious European tourists to Hawaiians "who drink it as an expression of their culture," he said.

For the bulk of the kava industry, the portion that deals with kava as a nutritional supplement, the latest news will hurt but won't be fatal, Johnston predicted.

"This set us back quite some time, years unfortunately," Johnston said. "But when the research comes out to show there's no substantiation, I think we're going to rebound. But it's going to take a while, perhaps a year. Or more."

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8085.