Waikato study examines kava's effects on driving

CHRISTEL YARDLEY/STUFF.CO.NZ

Kava users talk about driving after drinking the traditional Pacific Island drink.

During his years on the police force, Dr Apo Aporosa​ saw first-hand the tragic consequences of road smashes.

The carnage confirmed his strong anti-drink driving views and instilled in him a desire to keep people safe behind the wheel.

In December last year, Aporosa, a research fellow at Waikato University, was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship to study the effects of kava on driver ability and road safety.

Rakesh Singh, who owns Essential Spice in Hamilton East, said kava was becoming more popular with non-Pasifika people.
CHRISTEL YARDLEY/FAIRFAX NZ

Rakesh Singh, who owns Essential Spice in Hamilton East, said kava was becoming more popular with non-Pasifika people.

​Kava is a traditional Pacific Island drink and is renowned for its relaxant effects.

The two-year fellowship, worth $230,000, is being funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC).

Aporosa, who has Fijian ancestry, said his study is not anti-kava but is intended to inform the community and kava-users.

Kava is prepared in a traditional kava bowl.
CHRISTEL YARDLEY/FAIRFAX NZ

Kava is prepared in a traditional kava bowl.

He also hopes to dispel popular misconceptions about kava.

"This fellowship is a huge blessing for me because it allows me to investigate a passion, which is kava and culture," Aporosa said.

"When I was in the police during the late 1980s and early '90s, there was this huge focus on alcohol and driving but not so much on drugs and driving. And I would attend these ugly messes on the side of the road and know that alcohol wasn't involved but possibly something else was. So this study allows me to take this interest from the past, and take something that's important to me, and pull them together."

Aporosa is working through ethics approval for his study which will involve computer-based psychometric testing of kava users.

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A group will be tested over a six-hour kava session, measuring their driving vigilance, alertness and divided attention at hourly intervals.

The results will be compared with a control group of non-kava drinkers.  

Kava clubs will also be surveyed to glean members' views of their driving.

There is currently no roadside test to detect or measure the level of kava in a driver's body.

Aporosa said it is up to individuals to decide whether they felt fit to drive after consuming kava.

Kava has 18 active ingredients, including six dominant ones.

The study's findings will be shared with road transport agencies across the South Pacific.

"Whether a person should drive after drinking kava comes down to considering road safety in totality. Do they feel fit to drive?" Aporosa said.

"The study at the end of the day is being funded by the HRC to consider the potential of kava in motor vehicle accidents. But at the same time, when you're dealing with kava you can't overlook its cultural importance. Culture is part of who we are. We just happen to now be living in a mobile society and driving is something we do. That doesn't make kava a negative thing."

Aporosa is currently involved in lobbying the Australian Government to lift restrictions on the importation of kava.

Kava use was banned in Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory, in August 2007.

"Kava is representative of something that is indigenous and there's this undercurrent belief that indigenous is native, it's not progressive. They might look down on us because we mix kava with our hands and all drink from the same cup. Yet it's okay to drink alcohol out of a bottle and go leer it up downtown and punch people."

Rakesh Singh, who owns Essential Spice in Hamilton East, said kava was growing in popularity, especially among non-Pasifika people.

The beverage is favoured for its medicinal properties and is seen as a "good social, relaxing drink".

His shop sells kava for $5 per 100 grams.

"There are different grades of kava and we sell  only the premium grade. Before the recent cyclone hit Fiji, kava was selling for $40 a kilogram but that has gone up to $50 a kg," Singh said.

Kava misconceptions

* Myth 1: Kava contains alcohol or causes hallucinations

Kava contains active compounds called kavalactones, making it mildly psychoactive but is is neither alcoholic or hallucinogenic.

* Myth 2: Kava is unhealthy

Kava does not have any significant adverse health effects. The most common side-effect from excessive kava drinking is a dryness of the skin. Kava has been used as a traditional medicine in Pacific societies for centuries.

* Myth 3: All kava is the same

There are hundreds of different kava cultivars displaying varying flavours and degrees of potency.

* Myth 4: Kava tastes like muddy water

Kava's flavour can range from bitter and earthy to slightly peppery. It is not normally drunk for its flavour. People often eat sweets or fruit while drinking kava.

*Myth 5: Kava is addictive

Kava is not considered an addictive substance and does not lead to physical dependency.

Source: Dr Apo Aporosa and Auckland University PhD candidate Zbigniew Dumienski​

 - Stuff

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