Warning piles more
bad news on kava

Processors refuse to buy more 'awa
herb amid claims of toxic health risks

By Nelson Daranciang

A U.S. Food & Drug Administration warning about a possible link between kava use and serious liver damage is another blow to the Hawaii kava industry, already stung by an earlier governmental alert.

The FDA said yesterday that users of the herbal supplement should consult a doctor immediately if they experience any signs of liver damage. The warning follows a German government report last year linking kava use to liver damage.

"Things were just starting to pick up in Hawaii, and this happened," said Ed Johnston, Big Island grower of 'awa, as the kava plant is known in Hawaii. "I think it's going to be some time before the industry recovers."

German pharmaceutical companies -- the biggest importer of Hawaiian 'awa -- halted shipments and are waiting for the controversy to be resolved before resuming imports.

"The processors don't want to buy any more until they know what's going on," said Jay Ram, whose company Agrinom is the state's biggest grower and exporter of kava.

"We can't do anything with kava right now until it's cleared up."

Agrinom used to export between 16,000 and 30,000 pounds of dry kava per month to Germany, half of which came from independent growers, Ram said.

Kava is promoted to relieve anxiety, stress and insomnia. A member of the pepper family, it has long been used as a ceremonial drink in the South Pacific; until recently its biggest danger seemed to be in drinking too much of the sedative before driving. Then, about two years ago, kava in pill form suddenly boomed, bringing in about $30 million in sales -- and Europe reported liver damage.

The FDA's warning urges consumers to see a doctor if they experience any symptoms of liver disease. Symptoms include jaundice, or yellowing of the skin or eyes; brown urine; nausea or vomiting; light-colored stools; unusual tiredness or weakness; stomach or abdominal pain; or loss of appetite.

The FDA also urges people who already have liver problems, or who take medication that can harm the liver, to consult a doctor before taking kava.

The American Herbal Products Association issued the same warning to its members after the German report linked kava use to liver damage in 38 patients in Germany.

Hawaii retailers of the herbal supplement say they have weathered the German warning and were confident they could survive the latest blow to kava. They said that they repeat the warning to customers, but it has not affected sales.

"Kava continues to be one of our big sellers in our wellness department," said Rock Riggs, Down to Earth Natural Foods & Lifestyle spokesman. Down to Earth sells liquid kava extracts, tablets, capsules, tea and dried root pulp.

Keoni Verity sells Hawaiian 'awa in the traditional form -- a drink made from straining water through crushed 'awa root -- in Hale Noa, a kava bar on Kapahulu Avenue. He, too, reports no drop-off in business since the German report.

"None that I can tell. Our regulars still show up and new people show up. We're still growing," Verity said.

He said he also tells his customers about the health warnings and does not serve people who have already consumed alcohol.

Critics of the German report say further studies have pointed to other causes for the patients' liver damage, including pre-existing liver damage, alcohol and drug use.

Kava is sold over the counter in the United States as a dietary herbal supplement. It is touted as a muscle relaxant and natural treatment for depression and anxiety.

It has been used for centuries in South Pacific Island cultures. The active ingredient in kava is most abundant in the 'awa plant's root and stalk.

The FDA began investigating the herb after a previously healthy 45-year-old woman used kava and suddenly required a liver transplant. European health officials reported similar cases of liver toxicity, including four transplants.

The FDA urged doctors and consumers to report any possible kava side effects by calling 800-332-1088 or via the Internet at

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

E-mail to City Desk


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin