Kava – killer or cure?

unnamed-7Ask a kava drinker whether or not kava impairs driving ability and the response can be confusing.

At the recent Pasifika Medical Association 20 year anniversary conference held in Auckland, Dr Apo Aporosa, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Waikato, presented on kava related themes that influence a larger study he is working on about the effects of kava on driving ability and road safety.

Of Fijian ancestry, a former police officer and soldier related to the village of Naduri in the northern part of Fiji, Dr Aporosa was awarded the 2016 Pacific postdoctoral fellowship from the Health Research Council to examine the effects of the popular Pacific Island drink, kava on driving.

“Kava is a relaxant soporific drink made from the piper methysticum plant and its use throughout most of the Pacific Islands can be traced back 3000 years,” says Dr Aporosa.

“Kava’s ongoing use today by many Pacific people, whether to mark major events or to facilitate talanoa, positions kava as an identity and traditional iconic Pacific Island drink.”

“Most kava drinkers will tell you that kava’s effects are subtle and don’t change emotions or disinhibiting you like alcohol does; it simply relaxes the body and reduces anxiety if you feel wound up. It’s a therapeutic drink.”

Kava consumption venues are often viewed as places of ‘communal’ therapy.

“There’s a lot of face-to-face communication in kava drinking circles.”

“Kava drinkers can discuss important matters without the inebriant effects often associated with alcohol.”

“People connect, sing songs and share mutual happy experiences and talk about what matters in their day-to-day lives.”

At the conference, Dr Aporosa also dispelled some of the popular misconceptions about kava.

“My research is examining the potential of kava in causing motor vehicle accidents but I also take into account the value of kava from a cultural perspective.”

“Kava is culture, it’s our culture, and even if kava is shown to negatively impact driving, it doesn’t remove its cultural significance.”

“Kava also has a number of recognised medicinal uses.”

However, there’s also negative views about kava and its effects.

“Many people, in particular non-Pacific individuals, tend to look at kava and confuse it with recreational drugs.”

“This is interesting as kava for me is about the culture, harmony, important celebrations, talanoa and quality discussion, and respect.”

“Kava is not fermented, is certainly not an alcoholic beverage, and is not even a hallucinogen. Strangely, kava is non-addictive and this is well documented and kava does not cause liver damage.”

He said although thousands of people died annually from smoking and alcohol, there has not been a single death in the past 10 years that can be blamed solely on kava.

“Outsiders looking on tend to simply see a group of Islanders sitting around a kava bowl drinking brown water, clapping occasionally, talking and sometimes singing. What many fail to understand is the layers of culture behind what is going on,” says Dr Aporosa.

Kava is becoming more of a popular drink in New Zealand.

“I will always support kava use over alcohol.”

“Kava does not disinhibit, cause people to get raucous or violent.”

“To drive after the use of any drug, whether kava, alcohol or whatever drug people use, comes down to making choices, wise choices based on the respect and care of others. That is why this study is important.”

Many are looking forward to the outcome of Dr Aporosa’s kava driving study.

Dr Aporosa’s research is underway and once completed will be shared extensively with road transport agencies across the South Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand.

Dr Aporosa was part of the PMA panel entitled “Kava: Killer or cure” which considered a variety of views and opinions about kava and its associated practices.