Health

Health Canada investigating ads for natural health product targeting anxious teens

Health Canada is looking into the marketing of Veeva Teen, an herbal supplement claiming to help teens "suffering from anxiety" — counter to the health agency's guidelines.

Mental health advocates call Veeva Teen’s marketing confusing

Mental health advocate Erin Kendal, 16, questions how Veeva Teen is being marketed and thinks most teenagers won't be able to distinguish between anxiety and the symptoms Veeva Teen says it can help. (CBC)

A new natural health product aimed at teens may be marketing itself as a treatment for anxiety, counter to Health Canada guidelines. 

The federal department is investigating the advertising for Veeva Teen, an herbal supplement it approved for sale in April to treat "nervousness and/or restlessness." Under Health Canada rules the product cannot be marketed as a treatment for anxiety.

Veeva Teen's promotional materials claim it is the first product of its kind for teens that's licensed by Health Canada "for the relief of nervousness and agitation due to mental stress … all without any scary side-effects."

The product's website had said, "Veeva Teen has been professionally formulated as a powerful blend of botanicals, minerals and vitamins to help teens suffering from anxiety." The word "anxiety" was removed some time after 6 ET on Friday, and one day after CBC News spoke with Veeva's founder.

Mental health advocate Erin Kendal, 16, is concerned about the way the product is being marketed and fears teens could find it confusing.

"If Health Canada is saying that they can't say it's an anxiety medication, they need to say it in big [letters] that this is not an anxiety medication — otherwise, you're going to assume that it is," said Kendal, who works with Jack.org, a nation-wide youth group that works to tackle the stigma around mental health issues.

A screenshot of a section of Veeva's product page for its Veeva Teen formula. The word 'anxiety' appears four times. (veeva.ca/teenformula)

In an email to CBC News, Health Canada said it "approved specific claims for this product, including 'to help relieve nervousness and/or restlessness' but not to help relieve anxiety."

It said it is looking into Veeva Teen and will ask the company to take corrective action if it finds any non-compliance.

'I think it's confusing'

The founder of B.C.-based Veeva Inc., Alain Roy, said the language on the bottle was approved by Health Canada and that he will follow any recommendations made by the agency.

"What's on the label is a copy/paste job of what's on the licence," Roy said from a natural health store and pharmacy in Vancouver.

But Roy acknowledges some news releases for the product specifically mention anxiety studies. He says he thinks the public will be able to make the distinction.

Alain Roy, founder and president of Veeva, says the company’s adult products sparked demand for a product for teens. (CBC)

"'Nervousness' is a term that should be clear to a lot of people, I think, and 'restlessness' and 'agitation' and 'mental stress.' I think people know what these words mean," said Roy. "Will they think that therefore it's a product for anxiety? I don't know, but that's not what it's for." 

Clinical psychologist Dr. Melanie Badali, of Vancouver, isn't so sure.

"I think it's confusing," Badali said. "This is what I do: I'm a clinician. I do research. And I'll say I'm nervous when I'm anxious — I will often use those terms interchangeably."

'We're not licensed doctors'

Kendal thinks most teens won't be able to distinguish between anxiety and the symptoms Veeva Teen says it can help.

"What I don't love is that it does seem to be promoted as almost like a magic drug fix," Kendal said. 

"Their website, you know, it's bright, it's colourful, it's 'Hey! This is going to help you. This is gonna make you feel better.' But I personally don't like the way that it's advertised."

WATCH: Erin Kendal says there isn't enough information about Veeva Teen

Erin Kendal, 16, says there is not enough information available about Veeva Teen mental health supplement for teenagers 0:45

Kendal has been on prescription medication since she was 13 and says she worries that there haven't been any clinical trials to support Veeva Teen's claims — something Health Canada does not require for natural health products.

Kendal is also concerned there isn't enough information about the scientific basis for the product's claims, or about how it may interact with other medications. 

Roy said he doesn't have any data on how Veeva Teen might interact with other medications.

"When people ask us those questions, we tell them that they have to check with their health care professional," he said. "We're not licensed therapists or licensed doctors." 

Dr. Melanie Badali says anxiety is normal and even necessary at times, and it’s important for teens to develop ways to deal with it. (CBC)

Roy has worked in the natural products industry for decades. He says was inspired to create natural products specifically for mental health after his mother's suicide in 2012. 

His company sells 10 other natural health products that Health Canada has licensed to help with a range of issues, like improving sleep or lowering stress. 

Veeva launched the product aimed at teens in late August to coincide with the start of the school year. 

Roy said Veeva Teen's claims are based on Health Canada's publicly accessible online  "monographs" for ingredients, which outline information on risks and directions of use.

"We developed it with the science that Health Canada gives us," Roy said.

The company's adult supplement is permitted to say it helps with anxiety because it has a different formula.

Regulation of natural health products 'faulty'

The ingredients in Veeva Teen may be on Health Canada's approved list, but the bigger issue is the agency's approach to regulating natural health products, says Tim Caulfield, research director at the University of Alberta's Health Law Institute. 

"I don't think that people should take comfort in the fact that Health Canada is merely looking into this, because the entire regulatory regime is faulty," Caulfield said.

"Just because it's an herb doesn't necessarily mean it's safe and effective," he said. "This is the naturalistic fallacy that is so often associated with these kinds of products."

Caulfield worries about the message a natural supplement in pill form is sending to nervous teens.

"I kind of have a problem with the general marketing approach because they're basically saying we should medicate our kids," he said.

Roy says his product is not meant as a teen stress cure-all but is intended to help supplement other activities.

Timothy Caulfield, a health law and policy expert at the University of Alberta, says the bigger issue is how Health Canada regulates natural health products. (CBC)

"We would hope that teens resort to other lifestyle strategies first to deal with their nervousness or restlessness, mental stress," Roy said.

Badali says anxiety may not necessarily be a bad thing for teens.

"I don't know that we need to try to relieve anxiety if it's not causing any problems," says Badali, who specializes in treating anxiety and depression and is a director of Anxiety Canada.

She says it is important for teens to learn to live with a certain amount of stress and develop coping mechanisms that don't require pills.

Kendal says she likes to try a variety of activities to cope with stress, and natural supplements isn't one of them — at least for now.

"I feel like it could be a great idea and it could be very helpful. But, again, it's not quite there yet," Kendal said.

WATCH - The National's story on Health Canada's investigation of health product marketed to teens:

Health Canada is looking into how a natural health product for teens is being marketed. 2:14