Kava Consumption May Be "Intoxicating"

January 3, 2001

2 Min Read
Kava Consumption May Be "Intoxicating"

HONOLULU--In an Associated Press (AP) article circulating to major media outlets such as The New York Times and ABCnews.com, the effects of kava consumption are being likened to those of alcohol consumption on driving. The U.S. legal system is saying the herb, called "awa" in Hawaii, is too relaxing and can have the same effects on the nervous system as alcohol has. The case making the most news happened in California, where a man drank 23 cups of kava tea before weaving while driving. He was cited for driving under the influence; however, the case was thrown out in December 2000.

The AP included a Honolulu deputy prosecutor as saying that in California, it is illegal to drive under the influence of any intoxicating substance. However, in Hawaii, its driving laws are not as specific. "Unfortunately, it may require that somebody's actually killed before people become aware of the dangers of [kava]," a kava tea retailer told the AP, adding that he does not serve anyone under the age of 20 and warns against drinking kava and driving. On the other hand, it was noted that this retailer serves a tea that is four-times stronger than a typical store-bought kava tea bag.

Just like ephedra, kava is being scrutinized for its safety rather than its efficacy. In the November 2000 Harvard Mental Health Letter, Michael Hirsch, M.D., an associate director of psychopharmacology at the Boston-based Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, was asked about the safety of kava use. He said kava's effects have been compared to those of Valium and other anti-anxiety medicines. Kava works in a similar way by interacting with neuronal receptors and acting as a local anesthetic and muscle relaxant. When combined with anxiety medication, a person may experience adverse events; Hirsch gave an example of one man becoming semi-comatose after combining kava with his regular anti-anxiety medicine. Hirsch further said that high doses of kava cause symptoms of dizziness and muscle weakness associated with intoxication.

The American Botanical Council (ABC) immediately responded to the AP article. ABC founder and executive director, Mark Blumenthal, noted in a press release that "[T]he problem in this case is of dosage and degree." He added that kava users must be careful when considering driving a car or operating heavy machinery.

In fact, the herbal industry is well aware of the potential risks associated with excessive consumption of kava. In 1997, the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) issued a recommendation for kava labeling: "Kava should not be used by people under 18 or by pregnant or nursing women without professional advice. People should not exceed the recommended dose. Excessive consumption may impair ability to drive or operate heavy equipment, and kava is not recommended with consumption of alcohol."

For additional information, visit www.herbalgram.org, www.ahpa.org, www.health.harvard.edu, or www.nytimes.com for a copy of the AP story.

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