Health Canada Completely Drops the Ball on `Natural` Medicine

I was sad to read in this article sent to me yesterday (and hear on the latest episode of the SGU podcast) that Health Canada is lowering its restrictions on health claims made about ‘natural’ products and supplements.

According to the article:

Companies that sell natural health products will soon have unprecedented freedom to promote the ability of vitamins, herbal supplements and non-prescription drugs to prevent serious diseases and medical conditions, including cancer, heart disease and arthritis.

The changes to the federal rules, which take effect June 1, represent a significant boost for the natural health industry, which is eager to increase its credibility and capitalize on a booming market for vitamins and botanical supplements by directly marketing their health claims to consumers.

Up until this point in every major western nation, the governing health authority (Health Canada here, the FDA in the US) has allowed the sale of dubious health products such as herbs and homeopathic remedies to consumers without the need for a prescription from a licensed medical doctor. They allow this despite the fact that there is often little to no evidence of the effectiveness of these supplements. But instead of restricting the sale of these supplements and magic potions, or even putting warning labels on them (herbal supplements can interfere with prescription drugs), they have lowered the barrier for the billion dollar natural supplement industry to market specific claims. But not to worry, manufacturers will have to show ‘evidence’ of efficacy before they are allowed to market these claims:

Health Canada said companies will have to provide varying levels of evidence from clinical trials before they’re allowed to make prevention claims on their products for serious diseases.

“It depends on the nature of the claim and what we already know about the product. The more serious the claim, the higher the level of evidence that would be expected,” said Robin Marles, director of the bureau of clinical trials and health sciences at Health Canada’s natural health products directorate.

This sounds great at first, but unless you’re aware of how Health Canada has been treating evidence lately you wouldn’t know how low their bar has fallen. Cold-fX was allowed to be sold on the Canadian market with claims of reducing the severity and preventing the common cold, despite the fact that their clinical trials were highly flawed. If Cold-fX was a prescription drug, the standards would have been much higher, and would never have been approved. To me, their approval of Cold-fX is a bad sign that Health Canada is not above political or financial influence by major supplement companies. Health Canada will most definitely use the excuse that “it’s all natural” or “it’s just a supplement”for lowering its bar.

If this latest policy is not the lowering of the required standards of evidence, then what is it? If so, then why are the standards being lowered? Why are prescription drugs required to show safety and efficacy to a certain level, and ‘natural’ products required a much lower level? Herbal supplements are just cocktails of drugs with unknown levels, why do they get a free pass? ‘Natural’ does not mean safe. Now thanks to Health Canada, ‘natural’ means whatever the marketer wants you to think it means.

09. February 2008 by Jon
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