In Canada a new bill has been proposed, Bill C-51, that would make changes to the Food and Drug Act – the body of laws by which the Canadian federal government regulates food and health products in Canada. This is the equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US. It seems that Canada, like the US, is struggling to deal with a burgeoning industry of “natural health products” that are minimally regulated.

The new bill will increase government oversight of natural health products (NHP) for the purpose of ensuring higher quality standards for products and accuracy in the claims that are made for them. Proponents of the bill claim that it will serve to improve consumer protection. But the NHP industry is not happy with the increased oversight the bill would bring. Their hysterical reaction to the proposed bill is very revealing about the propaganda and deception used by the NHP industry.

This history of NHP regulation in Canada also reveals the two primary strategies by which the promoters of unscientific medicine and health products seek to advance their business. On the one hand they seek licensure, certification, and other formal recognition by the government in order to bolster their legitimacy with the public and also to keep competition at bay. When seeking such things they argue that licensure etc. will give the government the opportunity to regulate the industry and ensure quality control. They therefore take the position of consumer protection.

However – the last thing that the sellers of unscientific products and services want is real regulation. Their plan is always to put into place mechanisms for self-regulation. This way they get to have official recognition, they can erect barriers to keep out competition, but they are in charge of the standards. Therefore they are never held accountable to any external scientific or objective standard of safety or efficacy. Chiropractors, for example, only have to meet the standards established by chiropractic, even if this is completely divorced from scientific reality.

When the threat of genuine regulation is at hand, then the promoters of dubious health claims completely change their tune from consumer protection to health care freedom. Now they decry the evils of an oppressive government that would dare to tell its citizens what health products or services they can use.

Rather – rational regulations should always achieve a thoughtful balance between consumer protection and freedom. Also, certification and licensure should be used only when necessary and the foxes should never be put in charge of the hen house. Objective scientific standards must be used or otherwise the standards are pointless (except to limit competition).

If we look specifically at the history of NHP regulation in Canada we can see this switch from consumer protection to health care freedom in a very short period of time – from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Barry Green of the Ottawa Skeptics has pointed this out quite clearly. He wrote recently.

In the mid 90s, the NHP industry needed Health Canada to formally recognize NHPs through legislation in order to ensure safety and quality:

They wanted to know how consumers could be certain about such factors as purity, potency, and cleanliness of the products they purchase. They heard repeatedly that Canadians must be assured that “what’s on the label is in the bottle.”

Now, they seem to be saying that you should trust the industry to ensure safety and quality, and therefore why bother with regulations, inspections and those difficult-to-meet licensing requirements. I guess the NHP industry just wants to be treated like their products – big on claims but not on formal evidence.

Now that C-51 threatens to impose actual governmental oversight of NHP’s the industry appears to be in full panic/propaganda mode. An appeal has been repeated on dozens of websites, saying:

A new law being pushed in Canada by Big Pharma seeks to outlaw up to 60 percent of natural health products currently sold in Canada, even while criminalizing parents who give herbs or supplements to their children. The law, known as C-51, was introduced by the Canadian Minister of Health on April 8th, 2008, and it proposes sweeping changes to Canada’s Food and Drugs Act that could have devastating consequences on the health products industry.

Among the changes proposed by the bill are radical alterations to key terminology, including replacing the word “drug” with “therapeutic product” throughout the Act, thereby giving the Canadian government broad-reaching powers to regulate the sale of all herbs, vitamins, supplements and other items. With this single language change, anything that is “therapeutic” automatically falls under the Food and Drug Act. This would include bottled water, blueberries, dandelion greens and essentially all plant-derived substances.

The Act also changes the definition of the word “sell” to include anyone who gives such therapeutic products to someone else. So a mother giving an herb to her child, under the proposed new language, could be arrested for engaging in the sale of unregulated, unapproved “therapeutic substances.”

That’s right – the purpose of the law is to keep parents from giving blueberries and bottled water to their children.

The two specific changes that seem to have the purveyors of questionable health products worried include the changing of the word “drug” to “therapeutic product,” a term they previously endorsed. This means that herbs sold with health claims can be regulated as a product sold with health claims. It also means that herbs that are intended to be used as drugs – for their pharmacological effects – will be regulated just like drugs that are sold to be used as drugs – for their pharmacological effects.

There is some sense behind this change. It is reasonable to argue that the health regulatory agencies whose purpose is to protect health consumers should have the power to ensure the safety and efficacy of any product that is sold with specific health claims, regardless of its mechanism. I understand there are many subtleties to such regulation, and my purpose here is not to defend a particular formulation of any such regulation. Such laws need to consider many factors and balance many concerns – access, cost, safety, etc. Rather my point is to expose the blatant propaganda being used by the opponents of this bill and the hypocrisy it represents.

The second point of contention is expanding the concept of “sell.” Again, this is portrayed as an attempt to go after parents who are treating their children. Rather, it seems like it is crafted to avoid an obvious dodge of regulation – giving away health products and services to avoid regulation but then making a profit through donations or the selling of information, such as books and lectures. This change therefore is designed to close a loophole.

An interesting aspect of the propaganda against this law is the claim that it is being pushed by “Big Pharma,” the boogeyman of the “alternative” health industry. However, the pharmaceutical industry had nothing to gain from such regulation. In fact, pharmaceutical companies have jumped on the lucrative supplement and “natural” product bandwagon. They love having the ability to sell therapeutic products like herbs without any government regulation – no need to invest in costly research, and no one tying their hands in terms of the marketing claims they can make. What’s not to love. I would think that “Big Pharma” would be as much against C-51 as any company currently earning profits from unregulated health products.

But for propaganda purposes – Big Pharma is a convenient villain, even though they have nothing to do with this law.

It will be interesting to follow the fate of this law. Again – I am not saying that it is a perfect law or that it strikes the optimal balance between consumer protection and the free market. I am saying that any serious discussion on this topic should involve rational and objective definitions of what is a drug vs a nutritional supplement, and should incorporate reasonable attempts at protecting the public from harmful or fraudulent products, regardless of the manufacturer or the philosophical basis for the treatment.

But mostly this episode serves to expose the outrageous hypocrisy of the purveyors of unscientific or unproven treatments who are happy to be champions of consumer protection when it suits their needs, and then the next moment to decry consumer protection laws as fascist while transforming themselves into paragons of free-market virtue. Their ideological flexibility is impressive.


Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.