Like many Canadians who saw last week’s news article “Health Canada licensing of natural remedies ‘a joke,’ doctor says” in the lead-up to Friday’s Marketplace episode on CBC, I was very interested in learning the story behind it. Unlike many Canadians, I wasn’t at all shocked or surprised by the outcome. This blog (and others) have been critical for years about the lack of oversight where the Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD) is concerned. (The NHPD recently changed its name to the Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate. (NNHPD)) See “Do the Natural Health Products Regulations Benefit Canadians?”, “Health Canada Gets Out a Big Rubber Stamp” & “Safe and Effective? A Consumer’s Guide to Natural Health Products” for some background. For those who haven’t had a chance to view the episode, it can be viewed here:
To summarize, Marketplace applied for approval to market a homeopathic remedy they named “Nighton” to be used to treat fever and pain in infants and children. The proof of efficacy they submitted was a few photocopied pages from old homeopathic texts. They didn’t have to submit any clinical trials for this product, nor send in a sample for testing. Not surprisingly, they were awarded approval and an official DIN-HM. Here is the listing on the Health Canada website, in all its glory. As demonstrated by the parent focus groups they held, the average Canadian parent assumes that approved products have been thoroughly tested by Health Canada for both safety and efficacy. Needless to say it was quite eye-opening for them when host Erica Johnson revealed the truth. Of course, the average parent doesn’t know the difference between “natural” medicine and homeopathy either, or they would have been skeptical much sooner. But why would they suspect a difference? Pharmacies display these remedies on the shelves alongside real medicine, a practice that has been widely criticized and has prompted class-action lawsuits. This episode was timely in that it aired on the heels of the recent Australian review on homeopathy which has been described as the final nail in the coffin.
To further illustrate their point, Marketplace decided to test an actual approved product that may sound familiar. Scott first wrote about Mozi-Q on Skeptic North back in 2012 shortly after it was licensed. I followed up in 2013 with “Mozi-Q – “Insect repellent you eat”. But does it work?” In 2014, the product inventor appeared on the CBC program “Dragon’s Den”, asking for an investment to allow expansion into the US leading to the post “Mozi-Q Fools the Dragons”. It appears that the makers of Mozi-Q have never actually conducted any clinical trials, stating in this video that they couldn’t figure out how to capture mosquitoes. So Erica visited an entomology lab (where they have lots of mosquitos) and subjected herself to two 5-minute rounds of torture, serving as her own control. No, it’s not the most robust research, but it is miles better than the backyard anecdotes that populate product reviews. The results were obvious (and ghastly!) – There was no statistical difference between the two torture sessions, with 77 of the total 135 bites happening after taking Mozi-Q. There also didn’t appear to be any less redness or itching. If you don’t want to sit through the whole episode, here’s a shorter clip of the Mozi-Q segment:
Dragon Deal Cancelled
Erica revealed that shortly after the Dragon’s Den episode, each Dragon pulled out of the deal, apparently after learning the facts about homeopathy. The episode remains featured prominently on the Mozi-Q home page, making no mention of this fact. Since the Marketplace broadcast, the company continues to stand behind the product and Health Canada’s approval as evidence of efficacy.
The Marketplace episode reveals what many of us have been documenting for years – that natural remedies, particularly homeopathics, face little scrutiny from Health Canada when it comes to proving efficacy. Natural health product manufacturers are very good at promoting their products, glossing over the fact that they often don’t have good scientific evidence to back up their claims. Here are some responses from a few companies mentioned in this episode. Notice how they all refer to the fact that they simply follow the required NHP regulations. Health Canada did have a response to the Marketplace episode for both Nighton and Mozi-Q: “Health Canada’s response UPDATED.” Essentially, they dismiss concerns because these are (in their words) “low-risk” products. Clearly, they miss the main point that these products, while low-risk, inevitably end up replacing effective products, as illustrated by the recent tragic case of a child who died in Calgary after receiving homeopathy instead of antibiotics, and another Marketplace investigation into the use of homeopathic nosodes in place of vaccines.
Finally, kudos to Marketplace for the clever anagram, which sums up homeopathy perfectly:
Nighton = Nothing