Minister for Food Safety Dr Ayesha Verrall has indicated New Zealand will part ways with Australia on regulating kava, saying NZ recognises the Pacific drink as "vital traditional practice".
The comments from the minister came in response to a direct appeal from the Green Party after Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) proposed tightening restrictions on the sale of kava in both jurisdictions.
The proposals, tabled late last year, would effectively ban takeaway kava and tighten existing regulations on how it is prepared.
The measures were criticised by both kava retailers and the wider Pasifika community in Aotearoa, with one expert saying they treated the community "like ignorant natives".
Green MPs Chlöe Swarbrick, Teanau Tuiono and Ricardo Menéndez March contacted Verrall late last year to raise their concerns, asking her to "keep a close eye and ensure Aotearoa New Zealand remains strong, evidence-based and supportive of our Pasifika communities' right to determine 'traditional use' and cultural practice themselves".
A major source of concern about the changes was some of the studies cited by FSANZ in the supporting document.
Dr Apo Aporosa from the University of Waikato told the Herald last year that he travelled to Australia in June 2021 and presented latest research on the health effects of kava to a group that included senior health officials.
He said he did so to counteract "a number of misunderstandings and misinformation" being relied on by Australian authorities, but those same authorities appear to have fallen back on that old material in presenting the submission that underpins the new proposals.
Aporosa said he completely refuted the inference in the supporting document to the proposal that kava was addictive and had adverse effects on liver function, citing his own his research.
A 2019 study from Australia ranked the harm caused by 22 commonly-used substances, both legal and illicit. That study awarded kava three "harm points".
That same study awarded alcohol 77 points - the highest of any substance.
He also questioned why the Pacific community was not running the review themselves.
"It feels like we are being treated like ignorant natives, incapable of speaking for ourselves and our cultural substance and practice," Aporosa said.
That call was backed by Tuiono, the Green Party's Pasifika spokesman, who said indigenous knowledge and cultural expertise should be centred in any discussion around regulation of kava.
FSANZ is reviewing feedback to the proposed changes and told the Herald they will consider the matter, including submissions, at its next meeting in early March.
In response to the Green MPs, Verrall wrote that she was not aware of any reason to tighten regulations and said the Government would continue to prioritise its commitment to the Pacific community.
"I am not currently aware of any issue in New Zealand that would necessitate greater restrictions on kava, and I am committed to ensuring that regulations for kava in New Zealand remain fit for purpose for New Zealand," the minister wrote.
"I would like to assure you that this Government acknowledges the importance of kava to the Pacific communities, recognising that the kava ceremony is a vital traditional practice for many of the Pacific people. New Zealand continues to prioritise its commitment to the Pacific community to ensure that people have access to kava for traditional use."
FSANZ had no comment on the correspondence.
March, the Green Party's food safety spokesman, told the Herald that Aotearoa needs to "pursue a more independent, culturally competent approach to food security" and argued that we should have at least equal voting rights within FSANZ.
'Aesthetics of modernity'
'Anau and Todd Henry of Four Shells Kava in Auckland told the Herald last year that kava culture differs across the Pacific and has changed over time, and includes takeaway options in some areas, including Vanuatu.
"Three thousand years ago in northern Vanuatu, the original form of kava preparation was done by adding water to chewed kava pulp," the couple said in a statement.
"However, if you go to Port Vila today you will see that the most common way for people to have kava is in takeaway plastic bottles from the many kava bars located around the city.
"There are numerous ways that kava is consumed across the Pacific, but to us the essence of the kava tradition is about mutual respect, inclusivity, and civility, not necessarily the vessels in which the kava is consumed from."
Aporosa questioned the role of the "aesthetics of modernity" and said it contributes to negative attitudes towards kava.
Aporosa said the mixing by hand and communal nature of the kava experience is often seen by non-Pacific people as primitive and undeveloped, whereas slickly packaged alcohol tends to be viewed as acceptable, despite the huge socio-cultural impacts of alcohol on all parts of society.
He pointed to the increasing use of kava by Māori in New Zealand as an alternative to alcohol, with kava facilitating quality korero - often with other ethnicities in inclusive spaces - and questioned whether this had been taken into account by health bosses across the ditch.
He said there is no reason why non-Pacific people should not be using kava, which can "provide relational spaces that promotes positive mental health", as long as people respect kava, its use, and those they are consuming kava with.
The popularity of kava was noted by Swarbrick, the Green Party's drug reform spokeswoman, as evidence of a growing desire to "find deeper and better ways of connecting, instead of a focus on getting wasted".
"That's something to be embraced, especially when steeped in lessons about our place in the Pacific," Swarbrick added.