The National Association of Health Stores (NAHS) in the UK says it has been granted leave by the High Court for a judicial review against the Secretary of State for Health and the National Assembly for Wales to overturn the ban on the sale of kava products.
The UK banned the sale or supply of kava products in December 2002 after months of speculation over its side effects. The herb is grown in the Polynesian Islands and commonly used for relaxation and to control stress but fears were raised when products containing kava were linked to cases of liver failure around the world. It is also banned in Germany and Canada.
However the NAHS, which has around 400 members, says that possible concerns about the safety of kava should be addressed with warning labels, as for other foods and medicines. Kava was previously available in products such as teabags and natural remedies for stress. Holland & Barrett, the UK's largest health store retailer, sold nearly 200,000 units of products containing kava in 2001, according to NAHS, while the annual UK market products containing the herb is estimated to have been worth up to £7.5 million.
There have been 81 reports of severe side effects from kava, such as liver failure or even death, but in many cases the herb was taken in very high doses. Scientists at a complementary medicine conference in the UK last year said that the risk level of liver damage is comparable to that of the conventional drug Valium, and that a ban may be an an over-reaction to an uncommon side effect. However, regulatory authorities are increasingly looking for tighter regulation of food supplements.
Ralph Pike, director of the NAHS, said: "Any risk from a herbal product should be investigated, but the government has over-reacted. To ban products containing kava-kava because of the very low incidence of unproven risk is disproportionate and unacceptable when products such as alcohol, tobacco and even peanuts are all more harmful but are freely available."
"A proportionate measure to protect consumers using this herbal remedy that has been relied upon for thousands of years would be to apply warning labels, as our industry voluntarily did recently with St John's Wort, another well known herbal remedy," he added.
Solicitor Andrew Lockley, acting for the NAHS, said they will argue that there has been "a misunderstanding of what was required under law, an ignoring of relevant consideration and that European Law has been broken when the import ban was imposed".
He said the government's "panic response" to the risk from kava-kava products may be in breach of the legal requirements to act proportionately when rights of individuals and businesses are to be interfered with.