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Weekly Edition 065: Saturday 25th May 2002

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An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Thinking About Kava - Part Eight

Those kind readers who have managed to keep reading this series will have seen how looking at the potential medical benefits of the kava plant (Piper methysticum spp) from the South Pacific, and the underhand way in which these have recently seemingly been refused by the 'modern western health authorities', has led us gradually into an analysis of the slightly seamier side of the western pharmaceutical and medical world. Some readers might say 'Well, how come we, the public, don't get to hear about all the tricky things that are going on, why do we only get to hear about it in this publication? The fact is, though, that all this information (well, most of it), is already out in the public domain, but is usually relegated to minor paragraphs deep within newspapers, in placements that are easily missed or ignored. Sometimes it is almost as if news of a certain amount of real importance is hidden away to either make the reader ignore it or really have to search for it. This is another type of media 'spin' - a word that seems rather popular in the UK at the moment. But ‘spin’ - or 'disinformation', or 'misinformation' is nothing new in the press, and has been going on for well over a century. Readers with a historical bent will know that the Spanish-American war of the late 1890s (that resulted in the US take-over of Cuba and then the Philippines) was a conflict which became a real one but was originally created by the US press.

To a certain extent, one really now needs a special course to learn how to read the media and get out of it what is of importance; almost all the relevant information is there (somewhere or other), it is just a matter of digging it out and finding a pattern. Let us just take a quick and very minor example from the recent UK press: we all know how the public image of politicians and lawyers has suffered greatly over the last decades. With notable exceptions, members of these noble professions no longer have the same amount of prestige as they used to. They, of course, would dispute this - in public. But one knows that they themselves may be becoming concerned when one manages to come across a minor news paragraph on page 3 of 'The Daily Telegraph' for 8th May, 2002, entitled "Lawyers advised to avoid pinstripes". The small article, wedged in between a massive and lurid "'Pornikova' case may kill off Penthouse" article and another one entitled "Happier, healthier, sexier- and over 50" plus a giant "Stop dreaming, start living" advert for new cars, is actually the only news of any importance on the page. The UK Law Society is obviously concerned about the public image of lawyers, and the short article notes that the Society has recently sent 'appearance advice' to nearly 300 members who act as spokesmen for the profession. One sort of traditionally assumes that a pinstripe suit is the mark of respectability - well, it obviously isn't anymore: "Solicitors who appear on television have been told that pinstripes and polka dots (ties) could make them look untrustworthy", the article says. This note may not seem of much importance to the general public, but it actually is - it portrays a serious image concern obviously felt by the Law Society and actually has rather deep implications.

And deep implications there are not just a minor point about the image of lawyers, but about many of the institutions that 'we' in the so-called 'West' take for granted. The 'West's' refusal of kava from the Pacific is just a symptom of a major malaise - or a series of malaises - that enables almost non-accountable (to the public) forces in our 'modern' world to squash possible changes that may affect (e.g., financially) the status quo. Because the West's media is, in general, short-sighted, trivial and usually almost one-sided, the population of the 'West' actually lacks access to well-explained information as to what is really going on in the world. 'We' actually think we are important, that 'our' way of life is the best and is the final culmination of history. This rather biased point of view was presented very well (and posed as a question) at the beginning of Michael Wood's massive six-hour documentary series "Legacy: Origins of Civilization", broadcast on UK TV in the early 1990s. Here is how Michael Wood began the series: "… in the past few hundred years, one form of civilization, which of the West, has changed the balance with nature forever, and now it is civilization itself which has become the central problem of our planet. In our time, at the end of the 20th century, many people in the West speak as if the future course of history has been settled, people talk of the 'Triumph of the West', of the 'Victory of Liberal Democracy and the Free Market', and even of 'The End of History'…the questions which have concerned humanity for so long - What is society for? How should it be organized? What are human rights and freedoms and how do they relate to nature and the spiritual? These questions about the goals of life, it is said, have now been settled in favour of the values of the West…"

Well, I am pretty certain that hundreds of millions of inhabitants of the earth's surface would have some major bones to pick with that sweeping point of view - in fact just about any major group of societies and cultures (India, China, most Muslim nations, most tribal societies, etc) not included in the term 'the West'. 'Our' problem is that, like any past 'civilization', we too think that ours is 'permanent and the best'. No 'civilization' in the history of the world has ever been permanent, and ours will be no exception. Although our cultural ideals, in their purest form, may possibly be seen as laudable (by some), actual practice leaves a lot to be desired, but normal human pride and short-sightedness blind us to the depths of other forms of thought. And where are 'we' in the 'West' headed? Well, if we are not careful, we might just end up where we are headed. And we seem to be headed towards becoming like the United States; some say the best and worst of all possible worlds.

If we cut out all the 'spin' about the United States, and just look at what that sort of civilization has done for the health of its citizens, we see some major problems in the pipeline. Kava has come from the Pacific to help relax the West at a time when 'stress' is one of 'our' civilizations major characteristics, but has been refused by the West for unfounded and minuscule health concerns, amongst other things. In spite of great medical advances, modern 'Western' life contains within it the seeds of major health concerns that are accepted as 'part of our way of life'. Why try and prohibit kava when, in the US, it is known, for examples, that alcohol kills 1400 US college students per year? A US college study released last month and directed by Ralph Hingson of Boston University shows that not only are 1400 students killed per year in alcohol-related incidents (e.g., car accidents), but that alcohol also contributes to 500,000 student injuries per year and 70.000 cases of sexual assault. A report on the effects of tobacco in the US also released last month estimates that tobacco causes approximately US$150 billion per year in economic losses (amounting to $7 per packet), killing 44,000 Americans per year and thus counting as the leading preventable cause of death in the country. At the same time last month in the UK, the Royal Society of Medicine released a report warning of the potential health dangers of the new '24/7' (24 hours around the clock) culture that youth and modern business seem to promote.

But possibly the real problem of our modern 'Western ' civilization may be related to one aspect of its aims - prosperity. We may just eventually 'bloat' ourselves out of existence, allowing leaner, healthier cultures to take over. Yes, sad to say, the major health problem in the US is …OBESITY… which kills 300,000 Americans per year and is the nation's major health hazard. This is not the America one sees in the cinema or on TV, this is the hidden 'Bible-bullets-and-Big Mac' America (as it has been called recently by a journalist) outside of the sophisticated metropolitan centres one is more accustomed to seeing. Obesity problems eat up $100 billion per year, 12% of the nation's health budget. Too much of everything and a non-active life-style have sort of brought human evolution to a halt - the US now may be engaged not in 'the survival of the fittest', but in trying to ensure (as a culture) 'the survival of the fattest'. In April of this year, the US tax authority officially recognized officially recognized obesity as a disease (!), thus allowing patients to claim for the cost of prescribed weight-loss treatments. As this 'disease' can be the cause of strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, etc, it is the root of some of society's major problems - and as a health problem, it now far outweighs drinking, smoking, and other causes.

And the West wants to try and 'ban' kava?! They have got to be joking!

There may be a glimmer of hope for our 'expanding' societies, and that hope may come from the tribal world, the world of ancient medicinal knowledge - like kava. There are fortunes to be made in fat - obesity is big business. So, of course, big pharmaceutical companies are scouring the earth for remedies. For untold thousands of years, the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa have used the Hoodia plant (which grows in the Kalahari) to stave off hunger during long hunting trips. In 1996, a patent on this plant was taken out by a South African research institute and a consortium of UK and US drug firms (including Pfizer) have been developing from it an appetite suppressing slimming aid, which promises to be just the answer for the fat Western world. But in the rush to develop this new answer to one of 'civilizations' major problems, the research institute and the big companies forgot (as usual) the real owners of this plant, the Bushmen. Luckily, a sympathetic lawyer, Roger Chenells, saw the lack of ethics in the whole process, and legally challenged the big drug firms. The court case was not to block the development of the new drug, but to try and ensure some sort of proper compensation for the plant's real owners. In March 2002, Chennells won a benefit-sharing agreement that will guarantee the Bushmen a share of future royalties. A spokesman from Action Aid said this is “a lesson to corporations that they can't come in and patent traditional knowledge on plants from local communities and get away with it".

It is nice to end on a note of hope. But what about kava? Should the kava-producing nations of the Pacific begin legal proceedings against 'the West' to try and wake the 'West' up? Yes, I think they should.

Kirk W Huffman

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