FDA raises death count from kratom, a natural opioid

Facing a rising death toll associated with the use of kratom, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it's overseeing the recall and destruction of a "large volume" of potentially deadly dietary supplements containing this herb, which some people believe alleviates symptoms that come with opioid withdrawal.

The action involves supplements made by Divinity Products Distribution of Grain Valley, Missouri, and distributed under brand names including Enhance Your Life and Divinity, the Food and Drug Administration said in a statement Wednesday. In cooperation with the FDA, the company agreed to stop selling products containing kratom. 

"Scientific data we've evaluated about kratom provides conclusive evidence that compounds contained in kratom are opioids and are expected to have similar addictive effects as well as risks of abuse, overdose, and in some cases, death," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in the release.

"The agency has also been assessing peer-reviewed research and a growing number of adverse event reports associated with kratom use, including 44 reported deaths," the FDA said.

The agency has for years had doubts about kratom, a plant grown in Asia. It imposed import alerts on the substance in 2012 and 2014, and in November it said it knew of 36 fatalities associated with kratom, which has no FDA-approved therapeutic uses. 

"Our death count has grown from 36 to 44," FDA spokesperson Lyndsay Meyer told CBS MoneyWatch, adding that the deaths occurred from April 2011 through December 2017. "A recent death report to us, where the person died of opioid use, the only drug in that person's system was kratom."

With the U.S. in the midst of an opioid epidemic, the agency is concerned that people are viewing kratom as a natural alternative to prescription drugs, when there's little to no difference between them, Meyer said. 

"People are using kratom to get off opioids, when in fact it is opioids," she said. "Heroin comes from a plant. Just because it comes from a plant doesn't mean it's safe," she added.

Additionally, the FDA said it's probing an outbreak of salmonella infections tied to products containing kratom. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday said 28 people in 20 states have been infected and 11 hospitalized after consuming kratom in pills, powder or tea. 

The CDC and FDA advised against consuming kratom -- also known as thang, kakuam, thom, ketom and biak -- in any form.

In November, the FDA reported that calls to U.S. poison control centers regarding kratom rose 10 times from 2010 to 2015, with hundreds of calls coming in each year.