Joel Thuna is furious with Ottawa. As production and marketing manager for Global Botanical Corporation, a Barrie, Ont., firm that produces herbal products, Thuna estimates that federal actions in restricting or outlawing natural health remedies will gobble up at least 70 per cent of his company’s profits this year. Referring to fees that firms like his now have to pay Ottawa’s Health Protection Branch, the federal bureaucracy that regulates vitamins, minerals and medicinal herbs in Canada, Thuna complains that “we’re paying these people to bankrupt us. It’s frightening they can do this in a society that values its freedom.” In recent years, federal regulators have banned or restricted a growing list of natural remedies, including cramp bark, used by women to ease menstrual pains, and horsetail, a herb reputed to give people healthier hair, skin and nails. And critics argue that increasingly tough federal policies could eventually deprive Canadians of most traditional remedies. Declares Robert McMaster, science director for a vitamin and herbal manufacturer and spokesman for the Toronto-based Canadian Coalition for Health Freedom: “We are fighting an unwarranted bureaucratic tyranny which acts against products that are low-cost, safe and beneficial.”
At a time when growing numbers of Canadians are turning to natural health products, those sentiments are widely shared across the country. “I can’t understand why Ottawa is doing this,” says June Inglis, a retired Winnipeg schoolteacher. “They are banning things that help people preserve their health.” In Vancouver, fears among members of the city’s large Chinese community that Ottawa plans to clamp down on traditional herbs have turned the topic into a hot issue during the campaign for the June 2 federal election. “If our herbs are banned or classified as drugs,” says Linhoi Yu, who runs a Vancouver herbal wholesale firm, “that is a serious threat to our Chinese culture.”
Clearly concerned by the uproar, Ottawa announced early in May that it would set up an advisory panel, including experts on herbalism and consumers, to recommend regulatory changes. One possible course would be to follow the example of the United States, which in 1995 set up a separate category for natural remedies so they could be
regulated less strictly than prescription drugs. But the Canadian government has largely ignored the recommendations of two similar panels, which reported in 1986 and 1993. “And Ottawa is not declaring a moratorium on its current policies while the panel does its work,” says McMaster. “The Health Protection Branch still has the power to do almost anything it wants to do.”
Federal officials insist that their only concern is to ensure that natural health products are effective and safe. Under regulations of 1953’s Food and Drugs Act, anything that is sold for the prevention or treatment of a disease is considered a drug and required to have a federal drug identification number, available only to products that can supply proof of their effectiveness. In the past, Ottawa has tolerated the marketing of some herbs and supplements that lacked DINs. But with the surge in sales of alternative remedies in recent years, federal policies have become increasingly stringent.
Many natural health advocates believe that actions by the Rome-based organization Codex Alimentarius, which sets standards for international trade in food, could deprive them of even more products. Luridly worded Internet articles claim that Codex—at the bidding of powerful pharmaceutical interests—is trying to bring about a virtual
worldwide ban on natural health products. The facts are somewhat less alarming. A Codex committee is considering a proposal that would classify vitamins and mineral supplements—but not herbs—as foods and require that they be sold only at low dosages by members nations. Canada, Britain, Japan and the United States all oppose the proposal. There was also was a proposal in 1994— by Canada—that Codex establish a list of potentially harmful herbs. But Ron Burke, who handles Codex-related affairs for the Health Protection Branch, told Maclean’s that the idea won little support. Added Burke: “We’d be quite happy for Codex not to further consider this issue.”
While the list of natural remedies that Canadian firms can produce or distribute is shrinking, the companies face a growing array of federal levies to help finance the
Health Protection Branch’s operations. The charges, ranging from DIN application fees to a supplier’s operating licence that takes effect July 1, can add hundreds of thousands of dollars to a company’s annual operating costs. “For some of our products, it’s just not worth paying all the charges involved,” says Don Summer field, who helps manage a chain of Vancouver health food and supplement stores. “So we just drop them.” Federal officials say that they are aware of the criticisms levelled at their policies. The new advisory panel, says Hélène Quesnel, a senior policy adviser in the Health Protection Branch, “recognizes that a lot of people are concerned about accessibility of these products and the need to look at revised regulations.” The challenge for Ottawa will be to balance the need for prudent supervision with the increasing demand for natural remedies.
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