Bill C-51 on Summer Leave

With the Canadian Parliament adjourned for the summer, Bill C-51 is taking some much needed time off to allow cooler heads to prevail.  C-51 is the bill that will amend the Food and Drugs Act to provide an improved legislative framework with enhanced enforcement measures to ensure for Canadians the safety and quality of their food, drugs, natural health products (NHPs), medical devices and cosmetics.  The House of Commons is determining whether to approve the bill at second reading and send it to the Standing Committee on Health for hearings and detailed consideration.  Approval of the bill should have been a no-brainer, but an infamous Canadian NHP company has decided to play on the fears of NHP consumers and cause havoc.  Will they succeed in depriving Canadians of this important health safety bill for their own corporate gain?

From an NHP perspective, the development of regulatory controls and legislation has been fairly consistently followed over 10 years by both Liberal and Conservative governments.  Over that time, the initial visioning document has transitioned into regulations, and this bill was intended as the next logical step to integrate NHPs into a legislative framework for the drug-to-food spectrum of consumable products and to add the teeth to make the legislation and regulations enforceable.  This 10-year effort was demanded by NHP consumers and industry in order to legitimize their products and to ensure a level playing field for safety and quality.

Health Canada has accepted that mandate.  The Department established an NHP Directorate that is headed by a naturopath, Philip Waddington, and staffed by many specialists in naturopathy, homeopathy, tradition Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine and aboriginal healthcare practices.  It has also consistently consulted with stakeholders and meets periodically with an NHP Expert Advisory Committee (EAC) comprised of CAM practitioners and NHP producers and consumers.

StopC51 (an apparent front, along with the NHPPA, for an NHP company) ignores this commitment to NHPs by Health Canada.  This wilful ignorance is not surprising since that fact gets in the way of their narrative that Health Canada is in league with “Big Pharma” to eliminate NHPs from the Canadian marketplace.  Given that Health Canada has itself stated that over 70 percent of Canadians consume NHPs, the suggestion that they could, let alone want to, get rid of NHPs is ludicrous, but then plausibility is not a necessary condition for conspiracy theories.  What is necessary is a pre-existing insecurity in part of society, and here StopC51 plays on the fears of some NHP consumers who trust the efficacy of their products and who are highly suspicious of the medical establishment, the pharmaceutical industry, the government or all three.  Knowing that they have the ears of a group predisposed to believe in their conspiracy theory, StopC51 has been able to disseminate some outrageous claims, unsupported by facts, about Health Canada’s actions and motives.  Confirmatory bias and motivated reasoning disincline StopC51’s followers from checking the facts and discovering the truth behind the propaganda.  The result has been a widespread viral campaign against the bill by well-meaning Canadians who feel threatened because they have been duped by StopC51.

The effect of this campaign is noticeable.  Bill C-51 has been debated twice in the House – once on 30 April1 May and again on 9 June10 June.  In the first session, questions were put forward about all aspects of the bill, including drug licensing policy and food safety.  After all, the bill is not just about NHPs.  At that time, a few MPs hinted at receiving correspondence from constituents about their perceived threat to NHPs.  Contrast this with the second session, which was dominated by the NHP question.  Conspiracy theories may not make much sense rationally, but under the right social conditions, they can apparently foment noticeable political pressure.

StopC51 may not achieve their ultimate goal of quashing the bill in the hopes, presumably, of deregulating NHPs in time.  Such a goal would allow them to market multivitamins under the miraculous but unscientifically supported claim that they can treat bipolar disorder.  Though MPs have voiced the concerns of their constituents about the anti-NHP propaganda spread by StopC51, the parties appear to want to send the bill to committee in order to address stakeholder concerns there.  In fact, some MPs have, quite rightly, pointed out the strengths and importance of the bill.  How dare they advocate for the safety of Canadians over the business interests of a single company!

When Parliament returns in late September, the bill will be revisited in the House and likely sent to committee.  After all, if the bill had been the threat to Canadian democracy portrayed by StopC51, it would have been voted down before the break or withdrawn by the government.  Instead, Health Canada has taken the responsible step of conducting yet another series of cross-country consultations with stakeholders, which resulted in a set of amendments to the bill that the government will propose at committee.  These amendments would not normally be required for an amending bill but have been coerced by StopC51’s artifice.  The amendments attempt to address StopC51’s disingenuous allegations by promoting some of the language of the regulations into the legislation in order to reassure a public inspired to suspicion by StopC51’s viral campaign.

Once the bill gets to committee, the hearings will undoubtedly extend over a long period of time.  The committee members will have to signal to their constituents that they understand their concerns about the supposed contentiousness of the bill, and so many groups will be asked to appear, all with their own axe to grind.  I suspect that even NHPPA will appear, even though their status as an actual industry advocacy group is highly questionable, unless single companies can have advocacy groups.  The real shame of this turn of events is that worthwhile legislation is being held up in the meantime.

Over the summer, Ottawa Skeptics will continue to look at Bill C-51 – at the amendments being proposed, at what the MPs have said about the bill, at the egregious claims being made by StopC51 – but unlike StopC51, who apparently have a lot of time and money to devote to their cause judging from their website, we will investigate these issues using evidence as our guide.  There are, indeed, aspects of the bill that deserve discussion, but rationality should be the foundation of that discussion and not emotion, suspicion or allegation.  Let’s hope that the House Standing Committee on Health will think so too.

13. July 2008 by barry
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