I suppose I owe Health Canada some thanks. It was Health Canada’s lackadaisical regulation of dietary supplements and natural health products that turned me from a “shruggie” pharmacist into one that started advocating, publicly, for putting consumers’ interests ahead of those of supplement manufacturers. While health regulations are seemingly created to protect consumers, Health Canada has consistently given manufacturers the upper hand, prioritizing a company’s desire to sell a product over a consumer’s right to a properly regulated marketplace with safe, effective products. It’s now very clear that the Natural Health Products Regulations have led to an industry boom and massive sales, but also a confusing marketplace for consumers and no persuasive evidence that all those supplements have any meaningful effects on our health. Canadian drug store shelves in 2016 are packed with hundreds of products with unsubstantiated claims and untested products, and little credible information to guide selection. Yet all of these products have been reviewed and deemed to be “safe and effective” by Health Canada. Continue reading
The idea that “natural” products are safe and effective has been so effectively marketed to us that many don’t recognize it as a fallacy. Much of the supplement industry is built around an appeal to nature. Supplements are described as natural, gentle, and “holistic”. Medicine, especially prescription drugs, is the opposite. They’re “chemicals”. They’re risky and dangerous – just look at that list of side effects! Supplements are packaged beautifully, have impressive claims, and at health food stores and increasingly, taking space in pharmacies. Drugs are hazardous: They may come in a plain vial, with warning labels, detailed information sheets, and cautious statements about their effectiveness. Is it any wonder that many consumers, when faced with health concerns or medical issues, instinctively think of supplements as a safer alternative? Purveyors of supplements and alternative medicine have leveraged this fallacy so effectively that it’s even guided the regulations that allow their sale. Regrettably, the result is a marketplace that puts consumers’ interests last. The supplement industry has completely stacked the odds against the consumer, challenging their ability to make informed decisions about their health. Most supplements on the market have never been properly tested for safety or effectiveness. And those that have been tested have largely been shown to be ineffective – or in the case of products like vitamins, often unnecessary. And while there are undoubtedly some ethical companies out there, the industry is regularly revealed to resemble a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Despite this, the industry has gone from success to success – in terms of sales, at least. In 1994, supplement sales were about $4 billion in the US. It’s now a $37 billion industry that is remains only lightly regulated – or largely unregulated. With recent action taken against fraudulent products, there are more questions than ever about how to force the supplement industry to make consumer protection a priority. A new paper in Drug Testing and Analysis makes a provocative suggestion: Local and state governments already regulate another hazardous product: tobacco. Can lessons learned from the tobacco wars improve the safety of supplements? Continue reading
Medical history is full of strange practices and beliefs. As scientific principles have become the framework for determining what works (and what doesn’t) in medicine, we’ve seen a steady progression towards more science-based, evidence-based care. Yet some unscientific practices still exist, even when we know they don’t work. It might surprise you to learn that some people believe sugar pills can prevent and heal disease. This belief system, called homeopathy, is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide, and it’s growing. While there is no convincing evidence to demonstrate that homeopathic treatments are more effective than a placebo, many consumers and even some health professionals accept homeopathy as a legitimate health treatment, and its providers as legitimate health professionals.
Responding to the perceived consumer demand for these products, government regulators have had a difficult decision to make: They could ignore homeopathy as a health practice, treating it like we might think of astrology: firmly outside of medicine, and for entertainment purposes only. Or they could choose some form of regulation, targeting the providers (homeopaths) or the product (homeopathy), possibly with the goal of managing its use, or perhaps limiting harms to consumers. The risk of regulating nonsense is the perceived legitimacy that recognition and regulation implies. Regrettably, regulation in many countries has had that exact effect. What’s worse, regulation often seems to have prioritized the commercial interests of homeopaths (and manufacturers) over the public interest, leaving consumers with little understanding that homeopathy lacks any scientific credibility.
Given the lack of scientific credibility and the evidence it offers no medical benefit, homeopathy has attracted increasing criticism from health professionals, scientists, and science journalists over the years. This advocacy appears to be having an effect. Regular readers at the Science-Based Medicine blog will recall several posts over the past few weeks, describing the possibility of new regulation of homeopathy by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And just recently, Health Canada announced two important changes to its homeopathy regulation, which may signal a new direction that prioritizes the consumer interest and public health. Are we witnessing the beginning of more sensible regulation of this prescientific practice? Continue reading
So, when is a therapeutic product not a therapeutic product? It’s a head-scratcher. Under Vanessa’s Law, disinfectant toilet bowl cleaners and hand sanitizers will be “therapeutic products,” while some cold medicines and, potentially, even low-dose statin cholesterol-reducing drugs, will not. (Health Canada has just proposed switching red yeast rice containing up to 1mg lovastatin from prescription to NHP status.) Consumer Health Products Canada believes that arming Canadians with the tools they need to take more control over their own health is vitally important to public health and to the sustainability of our health care system. Our member companies produce and sell the vast majority of the OTCs and NHPs that Canadians use in their own self-care. We embrace the provisions of Vanessa’s Law because they are entirely consistent with the law-abiding, safety-first way our members conduct business. But, if passed with the currently proposed, lop-sided definition of “therapeutic products,” we fear that Vanessa’s Law will distort the marketplace for consumer health products and could undermine consumer confidence in the roughly 50% of our member’s products that fall under the Natural Health Products Regulations.