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NATURAL HEALTH PRODUCTS: A TIME FOR ACTION

Minority Report - New Democratic Party Submitted by
Judy Wasylycia-Leis, M.P. - Winnipeg North Centre

The response by Canadians to the parliamentary study on natural health products has been overwhelming. The NDP is deeply grateful to the hundreds of individuals and organizations who took the time and effort to make their views known. Together, the input, advice and feedback constitute an important body of research for pursuing wellness, disease prevention and holistic approaches to health care. Underlying it is a clear sense of responsibility for individual and community well-being and a positive force for change.

The NDP is committed to reasonable access to herbal products and natural health care alternatives. In the last Parliament we spoke out strongly against the Liberal government's moves to reclassify many herbs as drugs, to implement cost-recovery programs which impose huge fee increases on natural health products, and against international attempts at the Codex Commission to restrict access to nutritional supplements. We joined with concerned citizens and succeeded in achieving a moratorium on those restrictions.

Canadians want access to natural health products at affordable prices. They want their government to play a pro-active role to ensure safety and quality and in advancing research and knowledge about natural health alternatives. After a year of consultations and citizen participation, this report falls short of Canadians' expectations and leaves many unanswered questions. Many important issues have been left to an Expert Advisory Committee in conjunction with Health Canada, including such basic matters as the definition of natural health products, the criteria by which products will be judged, and whether an in-house research laboratory will be re-established. It is equally disturbing that the matter of regulating natural health products has been included in the three-year review of the Health Protection Branch and the 11 pieces of legislation which relate to this government function.

A central issue to the development of an appropriate regulatory framework was the Health Protection Branch itself. Time and time again, participants expressed lack of confidence in the ability of this branch to regulate in a fair and balanced way. The concerns expressed include:

  • the loss of the NHP Research Laboratory;
  • elimination of the Drug Research Bureau;
  • attempts to gut the Food Research Lab;
  • threats and intimidation of scientists;
  • the cost-recovery policy;
  • influence of the pharmaceutical industry;
  • a double standard for drugs and natural health products;
  • a general lack of openness, consistency and accountability.

Such widespread and deeply felt lack of trust in the very branch of government that must implement the regulation of natural health products makes it difficult - if not impossible - to move forward. Establishing a new regulatory authority to handle natural health products and opening up the Food and Drug Act in the midst of this crisis is potentially dangerous and could further jeopardize Canada's already troubled health protection system. Measures must be taken immediately to address the crisis of confidence in the Health Protection Branch and to respect the expressed wishes of Canadians concerned about freedom of choice and access to natural health products.

The NDP makes the following recommendations for immediate action:

1. Public investigation into the Health Protection Branch

There is a long and growing litany of damaging and questionable practices at the Health Protection Branch:

  • breast implants and blood safety are both under criminal investigation;
  • 70% of the drug approval process is paid for by the pharmaceutical industry;
  • sworn testimony from scientists about gag orders and pressure to approve bovine growth hormone;
  • a pattern of inconsistency and secrecy in the treatment of natural health products.

Because of deep and extensive cuts and increased reliance on data and funds provided by the pharmaceutical industry, the Health Protection Branch may no longer have the resources or the independence to regulate in a fair and balanced way. A full, independent, public investigation into the branch is needed in order to ensure the critical role of health protection is restored, and the foundation in place for open and meaningful approaches to natural health products.

2. Immediate re-establishment of a natural products research laboratory

The government must immediately address the overriding concern of Canadians for quality and safety of natural health products. The cancellation in 1991 of research and laboratory capacity in natural health products has destroyed our reputation as one of the most progressive and scientifically informed countries in the world. All efforts to ensure the identity and quality of herbal products on the market have stopped. No program for assessment of commercial plant products exists, nor is there now an experienced and knowledgeable body of scientists to do the work of assurance of botanical identity, purity, quality and strength. An in-house capacity for independent research must be re-established to assure Canadians that the products have not been contaminated with pesticides, adulterated with other herbs, subject to substitution with an inferior species of herb, or simply lack the active ingredient.

3. Ensure what's on the label is what's in the bottle

Complimentary to the establishment of a natural health products laboratory is the enforcement of provisions which currently exist in the Food and Drug Act. Section 4 of the Act makes it an offence to sell any food that is poisonous, harmful, adulterated, unfit for human consumption or prepared under unsanitary conditions. Section 5 makes it an offence to label, package, process, sell or advertise any food in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive. A pro-active and constructive role by the Health Protection Branch should include the random testing of natural health products at the wholesale level on an organized basis, enforcing measures that already exist in law.

4. Information, education and recognition

Overwhelmingly, participants in the Health Committee consultations were interested in sharing the knowledge they had gained through personal struggle with illness and disease or their pursuit of a more holistic approach to well-being based on the importance of body, mind and spirit in health. In the spirit of this conviction, we recommend:

  • A National Institute on Alternative Health Care to conduct in-depth research into the benefits of alternative health care and the integration of traditional and non-traditional approaches to wellness and disease prevention;
  • Acknowledgement of the contribution and experience of health care professionals including homeopaths, naturopaths, herbalists, traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic practitioners, and Aboriginal healers and initiate discussions with the provinces and territories about professional recognition and educational possibilities;
  • Leadership internationally to ensure the development and marketing of natural health products based on rights of indigenous peoples and environmental standards.
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