Publication: Alive, Canadian Journal of Health and Nutrition
#206, December,1999
Author: Kean Bhatacharya

The Politics of Health- Regulation Rigmorole

- The natural health products industry has a squeaky-clean safety record. This isn't enough for the government, for whom the importance of bureaucratic regulation seems to outweigh the evidence of healthy bodies.

Some years ago I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and the rheumatologist advised me to take an over-the-counter medication. The pain and swelling eased somewhat but in six months my tongue cracked and bled. When I came across a book suggesting giving up milk, I did. In just two days, many of my sumptoms disappeared. It was so simple!

The drug side effect in this case was relatively minor. But some drugs can be fatal. In 1994, an estimated 106,000 US hospital patients died due to adverse drug reactions- the fifth leading cause of death. How many died from natural health products? Not one.

Why, then, must natural health products be regulated? This fundamental question begs an urgent answer, because Health Minister Allan Rock has decided to establish a new office of Natural Health Products!

If It Doesn't Work for Them...
Just consider the regulation of pharmaceutical drugs. They are first conceived and formulated to remedy an ailment. They are then tested by the manufacturer for effects on human health and are later re-tested (not in Canada) by the regulator before review and approval.

When it's a prescription drug, regulation is carried further and the drug is available to the public only when authorized by qualified physicians. Everything should be OK. But is it? These stringent protocols don't prevent thousands of deaths due to adverse reactions.

Now Reader's Digest reports that Canada's seniors are being harmed by the very drugs perscribed to help them and that their lives are at risk.

If similar processes are used for natural health products regulation, it is unlikely to offer consumers anything better than the current drugs regulatory regimen, which is obviously inadequate.

This fundamental problem is compounded when the new office, organizationally at least, is associated with, if not under the actual control of the Health Protection Branch (HPB) rather than a separate organization reporting directly to the Minister. Its activities will naturally be influenced by HPB's professional culture. Many people have no confidence in HPB- for good reasons. It doesn't independently test drugs, but depends on industry's test results.

Health Canada scientists told a Senate Committee on May 3 that Revalor-H, a hormone, was approved in 1997 despite their concern of its effect on human health! The main ingredient of this hormone was later linked to cancer.

Also, senator Mira Spivak's statement about Montsanto's submission for approval of the dairy hormone rBST is worthy of attention.

"Even our committee, a committee of parliament, could not get the Bureau to give us the Gap Analysis report with the key information intact,' she complained on the Senate floor.

Dr.Michele Brill-Edwards, a former drug regulator with HPB, left the Branch citing industry interference.

Investigation, Not Regulation
Such events causee more than two-thirds of the 67 non-industry presenters to tell the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health in Vancouver that they wanted a full public investigation into the HPB. They did not want new regulations, but better inforcement of the existing ones. These requests for public investigations weren't even recorded in the committee report!

When I raised these issues, the health minister remained silent. He also didn't directly answer the key question which is: "Where are the dead bodies?" Instead, he argued there were toxic plants that were harmful even in small amounts. And some others, not harmful, could be so after prolonged use. I suggest he check whether the contents of packages fully correspond to their labels as well as on claims of products which promise to remedy specific health problems. In all such instances, appropriate actions are necessary. But that's altogether different from a full-scale regulatory regimen for everything.

The Canadian Health Food Association supports this regulatory initiative, and some multinational companies have reportedly decided to join this regulated market. The stakes are high. These corporations do not compete in free enterprise market but they heavily influence governments all over the world to make industry-friendly decisions.

Consumer Health
The new regulation of herbs won't be any better than that for drugs and the multinationals are lining up to support it. What is there for consumers?

Dr. Zoltan Rona, a prominent holistic medical practitioner, sees a future when many natural health products will be available only on perscription and at higher prices. He adds that 99 per cent of medical doctors and pharmacists are not trained in natural remedies or are hostile to them.

It's interesting. There's no reported consumer outcry for regulation. In fact, it's the opposite. This suggests that the government is responding to the calls of other interests- all in the name of consumer welfare.

The health minister acknowledges that "Canadians value free choices respecting the type of health care and products." At the same time he wants to be a big brother by denying consumers the freedom from government-imposed regulations, which also arbitrarily ban some herbal products. If the consumers value these rights and they don't want to pay for unwanted bureaucracy that makes big companies richer, there is only one way. Stand up and get counted by making your views knowns to your MPs and to the minister- loud and clear!

Allan Rock, Minister of Health
Brooke Claxton Building
Postal Locator 0916A
Ottawa, ON K1A 0K9    Phone: 613-957-0200    Fax: 613-952-1154

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