Safe and Effective? A Consumer’s Guide to Natural Health Products

How far have we come from the Patent Medicine era?

The following is a summary of my Skepticamp Toronto 2010 presentation. Apologies to international readers for the Canadian-centric content.

I’ve been practicing pharmacy for over 15 years, and it didn’t take me long to realize after I started working that there was a completely different standard for safety and efficacy for herbal preparations and other supplements. That is, they were largely unregulated. Compared to Health Canada’s internationally-respected approval process for drug products, there was no process in place to regulate the supplement marketplace. To ensure consumers fully understood the potential risks of these products, I started to give two warnings to anyone that asked for my advice about these products:

Compared to drugs, there is little regulation of herbal products. Variation could exist between what it says on the label and what it actually contains.

And if they had any medical conditions, or were taking other drugs or supplements I would add:

Compared to prescription and over-the-counter drugs, the information we have on these products is limited. They could have the potential to interact with other medications and medical conditions that we are not aware of.

Until just a few years ago, Canada’s regulatory framework was not equipped to deal with non-drug supplements. Products were either drugs, and were registered as such, or they were food products, and drug regulatory requirements did not apply. A grey area existed and and all kinds of supplements appeared – with no specific regulatory oversight, no defined quality or content standards, and no objective evaluation of the efficacy claims. Continue reading