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Weekly Edition 064: Saturday 18th May 2002

<< Island Ecology by José P Ribas

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An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Thinking About Kava - Part Seven

As outlined in the previous six articles in this seemingly endless series, recent concerns starting in Switzerland and Germany have effectively stopped the export of roots of the Kava plant (Piper Methysticum spp) from the South Pacific to medicinal kava extract and kava tablet producing companies in Europe, the US and Canada and Australia. In spite of the fact that kava, and the modern kava extracts are thought by many to be possibly the most effective and safe natural medication to relieve stress, anxiety and tension (at least the milder, more common type) - possibly the most widespread 'disease' (except for cancer) of the 'modern ' world, the 'modern' world has seemingly rejected it. We have gone through some of the reasons for this and also had a look at the very shaky (and minuscule amount of) medical information upon which a 'de facto' ban seems to have been based. There have been certain suggestions that if some of the major pharmaceutical companies had been able to patent various elements of the complex chemistry of kava then this might never have happened. Since particularly the late 1990s, the booming sales of kava tablets and medicinal kava extract was actually beginning to cut into sales of more expensive (and often less effective) patented synthetic medicines for stress relief produced by some of the bigger drug companies (kava tablets and kava extract medicines are produced mainly by smaller, less well-known companies of the 'natural remedies' type). However, I wouldn't necessarily want readers to leap to the conclusion that there exists an 'axis of evil' type of conspiracy on behalf of some of these large companies to just get rid of kava. It is slightly subtler than that. As a rather distinguished Swiss friend and colleague - well-versed in the machinations of the botanical and medicinal world - told me on 31st January this year regarding the situation in general, this "may not necessarily be the big pharmaceuticals trying to block kava, it may just be the medical profession in general against 'alternative medicine'".

There does, however, seem to be some sort of 'botanical hit list' that certain groups envisage. When my wife and I were in Germany in January, one contact in the pharmaceutical industry world told me that "once kava is gotten out of the way then the next one to be restricted will be St. John's Wort (Hypericum Perforatum spp)" - a very effective and popular natural treatment for depression. Of course, much more expensive, patented, medicines exist for depression as well. Whether there is a 'conspiracy' or not is actually almost irrelevant - if the end results are the same as if there were a conspiracy. What seems to be happening, at least in Europe, is that 'alternative remedies' in general, in spite of widespread use, are under threat from a number of sources and most members of the public are not even aware of it. Unfortunately, the media available easily to the public in Europe and the US is not usually of a type that will leap to alert people about threats to general liberty, freedom of action and freedom of choice. This does not sell newspapers, and as most citizens seem to be rather apathetic about certain things that are actually very important in life, the media can concentrate on other items that catch the attention and, although often trivial, can be given enough 'spin' to make them seem important. In the UK, for example, it is quite common for citizens to assume that the government is taking care of everything in the best possible way and is looking after the interests of 'the common man' (and woman, of course).

Well, governments are only human and those that have worked in governments around the world (I am not necessarily pinpointing the UK here), when pressed, would probably admit that 'life at the top' is rather like life anywhere else - with money, business, status, prestige and normal petty jealousies, disorganization and well-meant incompetence being sort of the order of play. Maybe an aside is merited here, nothing to do with our theme, but just something to keep the reader awake. When the CIA, from the early 1960s, began a major project of bugging the offices of national leaders worldwide in the hope of gleaning relevant security information, it was rather surprised at the general paucity of results. What surprised them even more, though, was the significant amount of 'sexual activity encounters' that ended up being recorded. I assume, of course, that this type of activity is/was more a sort of 'after hours' hobby, and not something that normally takes place during governmental representatives meetings in the leaders offices. Although the governments of most modern 'democracies' would say that they are actually in power to help the public and to develop the country, the net result of almost any government's stay in power over an extended period of time seems to be the more human one of attempting to squeeze more money for itself out of that public at the same time as imposing more restrictions on choice of behaviour. It does not need a 'conspiracy' to do that; it is just the way things go. But it is not really a good idea to let the public know what is really going on (particularly as some politicians may not even realize it themselves).

And so it is in the medical world. The general public often seems to miss important connections, or even react as if news developments actually exist in another parallel world and don't really have any effect on them. It has been known for some time that the 'accepted medical profession' is not really happy with the relatively rapid recent development of 'alternative medicines/remedies' and vitamin and mineral supplements (at least those that seem to be produced by smaller 'alternative' companies). Media reports - and many medical professionals - often play down the supposed benefits of these remedies, forgetting that most of 'alternative medicines/remedies' have been around a lot longer than modern medicines. Most modern medicines are, in reality, the 'alternatives' for much older remedies. This is not to say that modern medicines are not good, they have saved countless lives around the world, but little is said about the 'down side' of these. 'Alternative remediesĺ; traditional medicines and vitamin/mineral supplements are sometimes derided by certain of the medical profession as being a 'harmless' waste of money, etc. Well, those medical practitioners who mouth those platitudes have obviously not read the official medical (hospital) study done in the US in the late 1990s that stated that the known side-effects of modern medicines and pharmaceutical drugs in the US have become the fourth leading cause of death in that nation, surpassed only heart attacks, strokes and cancer. And yet alternatives to many of these potentially life-saving but also potentially harmful stronger medicines actually exist. Take for example, the case of the Saw Palmetto (Sabal serrulata spp) tree, extracts of which have been used for years to protect males from prostrate problems. Strongly derided by the medical profession, it was only a couple of years ago that the American Medical Association officially announced that it had found that it was actually more effective than existing (more expensive) modern medicines. But it is still only sold mainly through 'alternative' outlets.

What seems to have happened to kava may only be part of a general trend. In autumn 2001 a major meeting of politicians and pharmaceutical company representatives was held in Berlin under the auspices of the UN's 'Codex Alimentarius' Commission. One of the purposes of this meeting was the discussion of preparation of global legislation regarding control of 'alternative' health remedies and nutritional supplements (vitamins/minerals). It seems, according to some present at that meeting, that there has been a subtle sort of 'misinformation' campaign by certain elements of the pharmaceutical industry alleging negative side effects of nutritional supplements, etc. I am not sure if the 'alleged effects' of kava fall within this 'campaign', but at least one can see that this is part of a pattern. The meeting raised a storm of protest, and the Commission received millions of protest messages, half of them from the US. This has allegedly halted UN moves to introduce legal stricter controls, and there was thought to be a respite.

Really? No. The major players just shifted their playing field whilst most people's attention was low and have managed to get what they wanted by going through the EU. Remember that there are literally billions of dollars worldwide potentially involved here, and this really has more to do with money than with people's health. There have been rumours in Europe for a number of years that some of the really big pharmaceutical companies have been wanting to corner the vitamin/mineral supplement market, put their 'healthfood shop' rivals out of competition, and try and find out a way to get legislation enacted so that only their products can be bought by the public. Rumours indicated that the big companies wanted to get the EU to pass legislation in their favour. Remember that these companies are amongst some of the same ones that produce the 'modern' medicines that can save your life or, e.g., 'get your prescribing doctor a free trip on the Orient Express' (see 'Thinking about Kavaĺ Part Six in Weekly Edition 062 Saturday 4th May 2002). But big, smart, companies realize that there is good money in vitamin/mineral supplements too. It is all part of the same game - which unfortunately so often seems to boil down to money rather than medical care. Have you ever heard about a 'Vitamin Mafia' or 'Vitamin Cartel'? Sounds far-fetched? Well, it's not. The big companies (i.e., not the ones whose products are sold in your neighbourhood Healthfood shop), it seems, were actually doing that, getting together as a 'Vitamin Cartel' to artificially increase bulk vitamin prices. How mean can you get? Sounds like a plot from a grade-B 1950s movie or something from Monty Python. It all got too obvious, even for the European Commission, which finally fined eight of these big manufacturers a total of 543 million UK pounds in a landmark court case in November 2001. The fine was for operating a bulk vitamin price-fixing cartel in mainland Europe and Britain. More than 50% of the fine was reserved for the well-known company Hoffmann-La Roche (the friendly makers of Redoxon and Sanatogen vitamins) considered the 'prime mover' in the 'cartel'.

This has obviously not stopped the major players from trying to control the market. Rumour had it that one of the bigger companies had already set aside enough funds earmarked to pay their estimated fine. Sounds a bit like a game. Well, the game continues. In spite of intense opposition, the European Parliament voted on the 13th March this year to strongly control the vitamin and mineral industry. It is said the new legislation will result in the banning of 300 popular health supplements sold in the UK and eventually drive British health stores out of business. Visitors in Strasbourg at this time could have seen 'alternative remedies' activists handing out videos to Euro-MPs involved in the voting. The video allegedly accuses five of the 'European commissioners of corruptly colluding with big pharmaceutical firms in an attempt to destroy the alternative network of homeopathic and natural medicines'. Sound far-fetched? Remember that in early 1999 the European Commissioners (and leader Jacques Santer) were forced to resign after the exposure of 'rampant mismanagement, nepotism and fraud ' within the European Commission. It was this scandal that led to Professor Anthony O'Hear (Director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy), to describe it as " a European bureaucracy, now shown beyond doubt and for all its protestations and charters, to be hopelessly and probably irredeemably inefficient, wasteful and corrupt". We are supposed to assume that now everything is fine in the European Commission. But wait a minute. Why then, in February this year, did the brave Dutch official, Paul van Buitenen, whose information was responsible for the 1999 resignations, have to threaten to speak out more strongly regarding the lack of change and reform in Brussels since 1999? Rumours circulate that many of the officials linked to the report that resulted in the 1999 scandal in Brussels have just been switched to new jobs within the labyrinth, without loss of pay or privileges. Van Buitenen had submitted a further report (235pp with 5000 pages of supporting documents) of corruption allegations in August 2001 and by the time of his February 2002 statement had received no serious reply. So we should really, I suppose, not be surprised by anything that happens in Brussels, it does seem to be a 'can of worms'. We should, though, if even a small amount of the stories coming out of Brussels are true, be extremely concerned by German attempts in December 2001 to further discussion in Brussels on the introduction of a single Euro Tax throughout the EU. Supporting this move, the German finance minister said "It strengthens spending discipline in Brussels if responsibility for expenditure and income is put together". I refer you back to Professor O'Hear's statement above. Scaringly ominous.

So what can kava do against all the massive forces arrayed against it? For the Pacific, its export assists a number of small island nations to become more economically self-reliant. For Europe, certain well-connected interests may see it as a threat, not realizing that to combat stress - an ailment that modern life has made into possibly one of the defining characteristics of the 'developed world' - there may be no other safe, cheap, alternative. But maybe they do realize, and that is why they reject it.

Kirk W Huffman

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