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Kava Myths and Misunderstandings


Authors

Published

June 24, 2024


What is kava?

Unlike most substances reviewed at Drug Science, kava is not simply a drug, but inclusive of wider cultural understandings including practice, therefore defying a narrow definition script.

 

To fully comprehend the question of ‘What is Kava’ we recommend you read this blog written by Dr Apo Aporosa.

 

Kava is typically explained as either the Piper methysticum plant unique to tropical Pacific Oceania or the beverage made by steeping the crushed roots and basal stump of the kava plant in water.


Kava myths and misunderstandings

 

Regardless of kava’s subtle effects and lack of safety concern as reflected in risk assessment reports[i] and regulation,[ii] kava continues to be misunderstood, misrepresented and linked with more potent substances and their adverse social and health consequences, with this perpetuating a harmful anti-Pacific narrative about the drink and its associated culture. Common kava misinformation includes kava being an alcohol, having addictive properties and causing liver problems. These myths and reasoning behind them are discussed at length in the Journal of Drug Science, Policy and Law, 2019, Volume 5, p. 1-13.  A few of the lesser myths not covered in the Drug Science paper can be found here.  

 

Kava dermopathy ‘proves’ kava is dangerous

As reported above, high kava use can lead to kava dermopathy; a drying and flaking of the skin. Regardless that this subsides with the use of moisturizers and as kava use is reduced, without residual effects,[iii] this condition is commonly pointed to as ‘proving’ kava is dangerous.[iv] Research responds that “while this harmless drying of the skin may not look attractive to some, to others it is considered to represent the kava user’s enthusiastic engagement with their culture. It comes down to perspectives… [Conversely], people who use alcohol to excess can also exhibit problems such as the reddening of facial skin and a bulbous nose. However, these concerns are rarely spoken of, regardless that these symptoms represent medical concern, unlike kava dermopathy.”[v]

 

Kava dermopathy proves addiction, abuse and productivity loss

In a similar manner to the myth suggesting kava dermopathy ‘proves’ kava is dangerous, this skin condition is also pointed to as demonstrating kava abuse, addiction and laziness impacting work productivity. Kava’s lack of addiction has been addressed.[vi] While some interpret lengthy time periods in kava use spaces as demonstrating abusive and feeding addictive habits, Tomlinson explains there are cultural influences and nuances, together with kava’s role in facilitating talanoa (culturally guided discussion) and solidifying veiyaloni/vā (relational connection) that encourages attendance within these culturally informed spaces that defy simplistic cause and effect assumptions.[vii] This provides one of several counter points to claims in a 2019 Australian kava review which feeds kava misinformation with commentary such as, “heavy kava use has led to a decline in … cultural activity”.[viii] Adding further to this is work that investigated kava ‘hangover’ and claims that kava ‘abuse’ impacts productivity.[ix] Cognitive tests showed a 16.5% decrease in processing speed in kava drinking school teachers compared to non-drinkers on mornings following lengthy kava use sessions.[x] It is suspected much of this impact was due to sleep deprivation; repeated late-nights attending kava use spaces as opposed to kava specific.[xi] Conversely, the same study included reports of heavy kava users who were described as extremely competent and motivated in their work following late-night drinking sessions.[xii] 

 

Kava takes money out of the family budget and men away from their families

The 2019 Australian kava review “identified significant economic impacts of kava on communities”, critical of the “large amounts of money being spent on kava”, and neglect of family, particularly by fathers.[xiii] When compared with the cost of alcohol, kava is vastly cheaper while also facilitating cultural classrooms, quality talanoa and spaces of veiyaloni/vā (relational connection). Moreover, high daily alcohol expenditure by European cultures is rarely pointed to as having a “significant economic impacts … on communities”. Concerning claims that kava drinking takes men away from their families, research is clear this is not motivated by addiction, with one commentator arguing “that excessive television watching, gaming or involvement with sport can do the same thing [take men away from their families] – it’s about how people choose to spend their time. Kava, as opposed to personal choice, or even poor choice, has become the scapegoat and the point of criticism”.[xiv]

 

Kava causes obesity, diabetes and stroke (but also malnutrition and weight loss)

High kava use has been attributed to obesity, diabetes and stroke.[xv] Kava does not contain fats, cholesterol or sodium, and with only minimal quantities of sugars and carbohydrates; kava is reported as an appetite suppressant.[xvi]  Kava does not cause weight gain, diabetes or stroke. It is suspected contributing factors are salty foods eaten during kava consumption and high-carb meals following kava use immediately prior to sleep.[xvii]  Conversely, the 2019 Australian kava review reports weight loss and malnutrition among kava using First Nations people, stating this driven by “an obsession with kava and prioritising kava over other needs like preparing and eating food.” [xviii] If this was genuinely the case, obesity rates among Pacific kava users would by negligible. The Australian Governments Social determinants of drug use report is clear that problematic substance use by indigenous Australians is “a complex interplay of individual and environmental factors … [and] the brutality and trauma entailed in the European usurpation of the lands of peoples … followed by successive policies of ‘protection’ and ‘assimilation … [resulting in a loss of] social cohesion”.[xix] In Australia, kava mis- and disinformation has, and continues to, be used as distraction to broader governmental, racial and social issues.[xx]

 

US kava-bars are modeled on Vanuatu nakamal

niVanuatu (the indigenous peoples of Vanuatu) nakamal (a traditional meeting place in Vanuatu) are urban-based hybrid bar-settings that sell and serve kava. These nakamal are indigenously informed post-colonial harm reduction (anti-alcohol) ‘inventions’.[xxi] Most niVanuatu who operate these nakamal continue to have strong connections to their rural homes and traditional knowledge informed kava culture. Nakamal are often pointed to by non-Pacific peoples as inspiring, justifying and authenticating cultural tradition and occasionally appropriation within ‘kava-bar’s’ outside of the Pacific. To draw this comparison lacks understanding of culture and nuance within niVanuatu urban nakamal formation and structure.

 

Only Pacific people are allowed to drink kava

Pacific peoples are proud of their culture and welcome others into kava. Some non-Pacific peoples are using kava in culturally informed ways, spaces in which Pacific peoples also frequent.[xxii] Pacific people want others to enjoy kava, including those who seek to consume Piper methysticum in solo settings or a manner of their choice. This also contributes to Pacific export earnings and the livelihoods of small-holder Pacific farmers. The myth that Only Pacific people are allowed to drink kava is mostly heard from those in the ‘culture industry’ and said in reaction to criticism of both Pacific peoples and non-Pacific allies who have spoken out about exploitative, inappropriate and cultural appropriating kava practices. That ‘calling out’ includes ‘culture industry’ biopiracy and the growing of kava outside of the Pacific which has implications for small-holder Pacific kava farmers, export earnings and GDP.[xxiii] It also includes reaction to the adulteration of kava with addictive drug substances such as kratom; non-Pacific peoples who feel they have an inherent right to speak on behalf of 2000+ years of traditional knowledge and the Pacific’s cultural keystone species; those who have sought to exploit Pacific kava farmers by manipulating fair-trade kava prices; the misrepresentation of kava and its culture through misinformation and/or instruction on kava use that could be that hazardous; and claims that Piper methysticum pharmaceuticals/nutraceuticals and extracts together with pop-culture products are kava when they clearly are not. Further are concerns of ‘culture industry’ claims that kava as a cultural keystone species is substandard, that for it to be of ‘value’ it requires “value added”[xxiv] or “beyond powder”,[xxv] of the adding of flavors, additives and pop-culture packaging. Pacific peoples view kava traditional knowledge, mana (spiritual power) and behavioral function in facilitating and solidifying veiyaloni/vā (relational connection) as representing its true value, with this superseding commodification. This is not suggesting kava cannot be sold and only Pacific people are allowed to drink kava, it’s simply prioritizing the Pacific cultural keystone species in a consumer driven world.


 

[i]

  • Coulter, D., Tamaya, C., & Sotheeswaran, S. (2007). Assessment of the risk of heptotoxicity with kava products. Switzerland: WHO Press.

  • Abbott, P. (2016). Kava: A review of the safety of traditional and recreational beverage consumption (Technical Report). Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization.

[ii]

  • WHO. (2023). Regional standard for Kava products for use as a beverage when mixed with water, CXS 336R-2020, Codex Alimentarius International Food Standards. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization, Rome.

  • New Zealand Government. (2015). Standard 2.6.3 – Kava – Food Standards (Proposal P1025 – Code Revision) Variation—Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Amendment No. 154 (May 8). Retrieved from https://gazette.govt.nz/notice/id/2015-gs1906

  • Fink, K. (2024). Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) Determination for ‘Awa. Department of Health, Hawaii, Jan. 24. Retrieved from https://health.hawaii.gov/food-drug/files/2024/01/DOH-GRAS-Determination-for-Awa.pdf

[iii]

  • Norton, S. A., & Ruze, P. (1994). Kava dermopathy. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 31(1), 89-97.

[iv]

  • Butt, J. (2019). Review of kava use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Australian Indigenous HealthBulletin, 19(2), 1-28. (p.2)

[v]

  • Aporosa, A. S., & Foley, E. (2020). De-mythologizing and re-branding the traditional drink kava. Research Outreach (113), 106-109. (p. 108; Permanent link: https://hdl.handle.net/10289/13568)

[vi]

  • See p.4 for literature review on the topic of kava and addiction: Aporosa, S. A. (2019). De-mythologizing and re-branding of kava as the new ‘world drug’ of choice. Journal of Drug Science, Policy and Law, 5, 1-13.

[vii]

  • Tomlinson, M. (2007). Everything and its opposite: Kava drinking in Fiji. (Photo Essay). Anthropological Quarterly, 80(4), 1065-1081. (p. 1067-1069)

[viii]

  • Butt, J. (2019). Review of kava use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Australian Indigenous Health Bulletin, 19(2), 1-28.

[ix]

  • Nagalu, M. (2007). Grog [kava] makes Fijians lazy. Fiji Times, May 26, p. 9.

[x]

  • Aporosa, S., & Tomlinson, M. (2014). Kava hangover and gold-standard science. Anthropologica (Journal of the Canadian Anthropology Society), 56(1), 163-175.

[xi]

  • Aporosa, A. S. (2022). Yaqona (kava) and the school campus: Regulation versus facilitation. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 51(1), 1-20. (p.9-10)

[xii]

  • Aporosa, A. S. (2022). Yaqona (kava) and the school campus: Regulation versus facilitation. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 51(1), 1-20. (p.10)

[xiii]

  • Butt, J. (2019). Review of kava use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Australian Indigenous Health Bulletin, 19(2), 1-28.

[xiv]

  • Aporosa, A. S., & Foley, E. (2020). De-mythologizing and re-branding the traditional drink kava. Research Outreach (113), 106-109. (p. 108; Permanent link: https://hdl.handle.net/10289/13568).

[xv]

  • Chambers, N. (2018). Deadly drink: Yaqona identified as a leading cause of stroke. Fiji Times, July 30. p.8.

  • Bolatiki, M. (2014). Kava health warning: Excessive consumption of kava (yaqona), or grog kills. Fiji Sun (online). Nov. 7. Retrieved from http://fijisun.com.fj/2014/11/07/kava-health-warning/

[xvi]

  • Thomson, B. (1908). The Fijians: A study of the decay of custom.  (Vol. 1969 reprint.). London: Dawsons of Pall Mall. (p. 347)

[xvii]

  • Rawalai, L. (2014). 'Kavaholics' told to drink in moderation. Fiji Times online, Sept. 1. Retrieved from http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=278962

  • Grace, R. F. (2003). Kava drinking in Vanuatu: A hospital based survey. Pacific Health Dialogue, 10(2), 41-44. (p.43)

[xviii]

  • Butt, J. (2019). Review of kava use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Australian Indigenous Health Bulletin, 19(2), 1-28. (p. 6,9)

[xix]

  • Spooner, C., & Hetherington, K. (2004). Social determinants of drug use. Technical report number 228. Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales. (p. 194,206)

[xx]

  • D'Abbs, P. (1995). The power of kava or the power of ideas? Kava use and kava policy in the Northern Territory, Australia. In N. J. Pollock (Ed.), The power of kava (Vol. 18, Canberra Anthropology (Special volume,1&2), pp. 166-183). Canberra: Australian National University. (p.167)

  • Sanders, W. (2002). Towards an indigenous order of Australian government: Rethinking self-determination as indigenous affairs policy. Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Policy Research.

  • Aporosa, A. (2019). Australia’s discussion of kava imports reflects lack of cultural understanding. The Conversation, June 9. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/australias-discussion-of-kava-imports-reflects-lack-of-cultural-understanding-115662

[xxi]

  • Aporosa, S. (2014). Yaqona (kava) and education in Fiji: Investigating ‘cultural complexities’ from a post-development perspective. Albany: Massey University, Directorate Pasifika@Massey. (p. 41,45,162, Permanent link: https://tinyurl.com/KavaEducation)

  • Aporosa, S. A. (2022). ‘Doped’ on kava: Understanding kava’s impacts on cognition and driving. Suva: Pacific Studies Press. (p. 59-60; download link: https://tinyurl.com/dopedonkava) (p.8)

[xxii]

  • Aporosa, S. (2015). The new kava user: Diasporic identity formation in reverse. New Zealand Sociology, 30(4), 58-77.

[xxiii]

[xxiv]

[xxv]

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