British Columbia

Federal NDP health critic pushes back on plans to require more evidence for health claims of natural products

Health Canada says it's trying to make the rules more consistent for everything from vitamins to traditional Chinese medicine to non-prescription drugs like Tylenol.

UBC professor says high cost of clinical trials worth it: 'That is the price of safety'

Vitamins would be affected by the proposed Health Canada regulations. (Iryna Imago/Shutterstock)

The federal NDP's health critic says he's dismayed by proposed regulations that would require the claims on labels of natural health products to be supported by the same level of scientific evidence as non-prescription drugs.

Health Canada is currently consulting on a potential new set of regulations for labelling of "self-care" products, including cosmetics, natural health products and over-the-counter drugs.

Vancouver Kingsway MP Don Davies told reporters he's concerned about the implications for the public and for manufacturers of things like vitamins and herbal medicines.

"This has caused great consternation and concern among patients, among practitioners and industry in Canada, as they see that these changes may lead to consumers having far less choice over the products that they wish to access," Davies said Monday morning.

Health Canada says it's trying to make the rules more consistent for everything from vitamins to traditional Chinese medicine to non-prescription drugs like Tylenol.

The proposed changes would mean, for example, that a homeopathic remedy claiming to relieve cold symptoms would require the same level of scientific evidence as an over-the-counter drug. 

Products that are not reviewed for their effectiveness might require a disclaimer on the label making that clear.

Concerns about cost of clinical trials

Right now, health claims associated with these alternative treatments can be approved by Ottawa if they're supported by non-scientific evidence like traditional use or an herbal pharmacopoeia.

The maximum penalty for breaking the rules for natural health products is $5,000, while pharmaceutical companies can be fined more than $5 million for violating Canadian laws about non-prescription drugs.

Davies told CBC he believes any health claims should be backed up by evidence, but clinical trials are too expensive for manufacturers to justify when they can't patent their natural health products.

"It will result in the industry having to spend a lot of money and losing business to other industry actors outside of the country," he said.

Homeopathic remedies are not supported by scientific evidence. (Shutterstock/Yuri Nunes)

According to Davies, natural health products generate more than $12 billion in revenue annually in Canada, and exports are valued at $1.5 to $2 billion.

Bernie Garrett, a UBC nursing professor who studies deception in health care, rejected the argument that clinical trials are too expensive for manufacturers of natural health products.

"That is the price of safety," he told CBC. "Unless we do the kind of research that we have to do with standard pharmaceuticals and drugs, then how do we know that they're safe and what the long-term side effects are?"

NDP appears with controversial group

During Monday's news conference, Davies appeared alongside fellow New Democrat Jenny Kwan, and provided reporters with a petition calling on the Canadian government to stick with the current regulations for natural health products.

That petition says that natural health products "are not drugs, and should be regulated appropriately given their long-standing use and unique applications."

The petition was developed by the Health Action Network Society (HANS), a Vancouver charity with a history of spreading anti-vaccination claims, along with practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine.

HANS general manager Naida Geisler said the proposed regulations "disrespect ... the health traditions of a multicultural society" — particularly homeopathic and traditional Chinese remedies.

Health Canada says the proposed rules are not expected to impact the availability of natural health products.

"While these proposed changes aim to make labels easier to read, they would in no way affect how the product is otherwise regulated," a ministry spokesperson said in an email.

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay has more than a decade of experience in B.C. journalism, with a focus on the courts, health and social justice issues. She has also reported on human rights and crimes against humanity in Cambodia. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.