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When Your Wellness Drink Makes You Unwell

What you should know about kratom, the controversial herbal supplement sparking numerous wrongful death lawsuits

By Brian Kabateck

It’s good to take care of your health—to move your body, eat right, and find ways to calm and focus your mind in these busy, overstimulated times.

“The concept of wellness has been around for a long time,” says the McKinsey Report, but it has evolved, broadened, and become more sophisticated. Wellness is no longer just for gym buffs and health nuts. Today’s consumers take a holistic view, seeing wellness as “encompassing not just fitness and nutrition but also overall physical and mental health and appearance.”

Our choices in wellness products and services are big business. In 2021, McKinsey estimated the global wellness market at $1.5 trillion, with a yearly 15-10% growth rate.

In a wide variety of wellness products—from skincare to supplements—consumers significantly prefer “natural” ingredients.

But it’s important to realize that choosing “natural” products doesn’t necessarily translate to more awareness of what you’re putting on or in your body.

The NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health emphasizes that just because a product, especially medicinal, is “natural” doesn’t mean it is better—or safe.

Some very natural and healthy-sounding “wellness” products contain powerful—even dangerous—ingredients, which are not regulated as drugs by the FDA because they are considered food.

Such is the case with kratom, an herbal supplement and ingredient in popular health drinks. It is now the target of dozens of wrongful death lawsuits after a string of deaths have been connected to its consumption, NPR reported in July. The CDC has linked over 150 fatalities to kratom use.

According to NPR, “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns Americans not to use kratom.” However, because it is currently classified as a food, not a drug, consumers can’t really know what’s in the “myriad powders, capsules and concentrates flooding the market, and how to use them safely.”

Kratom, (Mitragyna speciosa), is derived from the leaves of a plant in the coffee family. It is native to Southeast Asia and’s been part of folk medicine for centuries.

In low doses, kratom has a stimulant effect, not unlike some medications used in the treatment of ADHD. In higher doses, it works like an opioid, causing a euphoric high that can lead to addiction. Kratom can also cause seizures, organ failure, and liver toxicity; particularly in combination with alcohol consumption, it has sometimes proved deadly.

Proponents of kratom say it helps people relax, focus, and loosen up in social settings; they say it offers pain relief and alleviates depression and anxiety.

Because it is legal, readily available, relatively inexpensive, doesn’t require a prescription, and may ease some symptoms of drug withdrawal, kratom often appeals to people in recovery from alcohol or opioid addiction.

Kratom is sold online and at brick-and-mortar retailers. You can buy it at gas stations, convenience stores, tea shops, smoke and vape shops, and health food stores. It comes in seltzers, other bottled drinks, concentrated powders, capsules, or drink mixes. You can easily find D-I-Y recipes for kratom teas and cocktails. Marketed as natural and often sold alongside snacks and energy drinks, kratom appears harmless.

According to the FDA, an estimated 1.7 million Americans, 12 years and older, have used kratom. Child Mind Institute reports, “Kratom use among teenagers is rising. They assume it’s safe because it’s legal and made from a plant, but it’s not. It’s addictive.” 

Some brands aggressively market kratom to students and college athletes as a way to improve concentration and relieve stress. Social media ads target users with a history of alcohol and drug addiction.

Kratom is a billion-dollar business in the U.S., with 2000 tons imported monthly. Lobbying groups like the American Kratom Association have resisted governmental efforts to regulate it as a drug. (It’s worth noting that some medical and drug policy experts affirm kratom may have value as an opioid alternative in certain circumstances and argue against a complete ban at this time—but they emphasize that much more science is needed.)

However, due to its dangers and unregulated status, kratom is now under severe legal fire.

“Dozens of wrongful death lawsuits…have been filed over the product and how it is marketed,” NPR said in July. “Last week, a jury in Washington state awarded a $2.5 million verdict in the first kratom wrongful death trial in the U.S.”

In California, Botanic Tonics, a Santa Monica beverage company and Feel Free Wellness Tonics manufacturer, faces a class action suit over misleading advertising. Plaintiff Romulo Torres, a recovering alcoholic, alleges he was “deceived by the company’s advertisements,” the LA Times reported in April. According to the suit, kratom, not kava, is the main ingredient in Botanic Tonics’ Feel Free kava drink, which is marketed as a ‘safe, sober and healthy alternative to alcohol.’

Torres claims that with no label warning of potential side effects, he became severely addicted to the drink, consuming up to 10 per day. Over several months, he was hospitalized multiple times, experiencing symptoms similar to alcohol poisoning, even though his blood alcohol content was zero, as well as “symptoms associated with severe opioid use, including vomiting, lapses in consciousness, delirium, and psychosis.”

According to the lawsuit, “His symptoms were attributed to the ingredients in Feel Free,” said the LA Times. “Eventually, Torres would quit his job and soon find himself ‘back at ground zero in his recovery.'”

Several countries and six states in the U.S. have banned kratom, including Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wisconsin. It’s currently legal in California but has been outlawed in some local jurisdictions, including two cities in San Diego County.

Consumer protection laws are designed to ensure the rights of vulnerable consumers in society. The laws are a form of government directive intended to protect the rights of consumers. ​If you believe you and many others have been somehow injured, cheated, or otherwise harmed by unfair business practices, call us, and let us help you protect your rights.