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

SkeptiCamp: Coming to a Canadian City Near You

Are you baffled by the popularity of pseudoscience? Are you interested in critical thinking and science? On October 23, 2010 four SkeptiCamps will take place across Canada. If you enjoy reading this blog, you’ll undoubtably enjoy SkeptiCamp.

Happily, SkeptiCamp involves no actual camping. It’s a flexibly organized, collaborative conference on science and critical thinking. SkeptiCamp is not your typical conference with high fees, long talks and little interaction with speakers. It differs in three key ways:

  1. Openness – anyone with something to contribute or a desire to learn is welcome and invited to participate. Topics are chosen not by the organizers, but rather by their presenters.
  2. Participation – because admission is free, everyone is asked to contribute in some way, either by giving a talk or helping to put the event together. At the very least, attendees are asked to interact with speakers and other attendees.
  3. Collaboration – The organizing efforts are distributed amongst many, including the participants.

There are four SkeptiCamps on October 23: Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Toronto.

I’ll be speaking at the Toronto event on a topic that I’m sure will be of no surprise to the readers of this blog: Natural health product regulation. Other talks will include:

  • Cognitive Underpinnings of Sympathetic Magic
  • How to make sense of medical literature / levels of evidence / Clinical trials
  • Naturopath
  • Libel laws, Skepticism, and the internet: A Primer
  • Conspiracy theories
  • Philosophy of Science and Pseudoscience (or Why Skeptics Should Stop Talking about Falsifiability)
  • Can we overcome the irrational pitfalls of human psychology?
  • Politics, Policy, and Skeptical Activism
  • Critical Thinking in High Schools

For the full Toronto agenda, you can get more information here, RSVP here, follow on Twitter, or join the Facebook group. The final details are still being worked out but the program will probably run 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm at a 216 Beverley Street (Queen’s Park subway stop).

If there’s one near you, consider attending SkeptiCamp on October 23. Given it’s free, Skepticamp offers tremendous value-for-money. And if you’re attending the Toronto SkeptiCamp, be sure to say hello.