Proposed bill has proponents of natural remedies feeling faint

The aisles of 3 Beans Health Foods are lined with bottles, vials and boxes of natural medicine. There are remedies for motion sickness, headaches…

The aisles of 3 Beans Health Foods are lined with bottles, vials and boxes of natural medicine.

There are remedies for motion sickness, headaches and even PMS.

But recently, a controversial new federal bill before Parliament, which may threaten these natural health products, has 3 Beans owner Marion Nigel and her customers reaching for the bottles marked “stress relief.”

If passed, Bill C-51 will impose changes to the Food and Drug Act, including tougher standards on pharmaceutical companies.

Government supporters of the bill say it’s necessary because the Food and Drug Act has not been amended for more than 50 years.

However, vitamins, minerals, herbal products homeopathic medicines and other products will also be included in the new legislation as “therapeutic products.”

The bill’s vague language has retailers, manufacturers, complementary medicine practitioners and the public at large concerned about the powers it may give to government.

On Monday, the government proposed a series of amendments to quell fears of mothers being fined and carted off to jail for giving their child a natural cough syrup.

“This is such a weird bill,” said Nigel on Wednesday.

“People want to choose what to buy when they buy it — they don’t want to have to go to a doctor for a prescription.”

Aside from becoming harder to acquire, these products could become much more expensive if treated as drugs.

Take Vitamin C is for example.

At $8 a bottle it’s a pretty inexpensive supplement.

But if it is taxed under the drug act a bottle of the vitamin could cost you $45, said Nigel.

And the types of shoddy product that the bill’s regulations intend to fight are already covered in the Natural Health Products Regulations.

Unlike the Food and Drug Act, which has gone unchanged since the 1950s, these regulations were last amended in 2004.

“The regulations make sure it’s not just, well, let’s take some cow poop, mix it up with some glue, stick it in a capsule and say oh, this is going to cure ya,” said Nigel.

“And that’s good. You don’t want the moms and pops making this stuff in their basements.”

Most of the large companies that produce these products already comply with those regulations, she said.

“All the companies we carry are compliant with that. We don’t carry any company that is not.”

The bill was brought forward by pharmaceutical companies who are losing money to the natural alternatives, Nigel added.

In 2005, 74 per cent of Canadians regularly used natural health products, said MP Gary Goodyear in the House of Commons on Monday.

Goodyear, who was a chiropractic doctor prior to entering Parliament, stressed the importance of the bill and announced a number of amendments intended to quell concern.

“It is important that (natural health products) be regulated in order to protect Canadians; to make sure that tainted products are found and recalled, that what is on the label is actually in the bottle, and that health claims are supported by evidence,” he said.

Some of these products make completely unfounded claims — such as curing cancer or preventing SARS.

Recently, liver toxicity was associated with the use of a black cohosh product and it was later discovered to contain a different species of plant than what was listed on the label.

In reaction to the overwhelming response the bill, officials from Health Canada conducted stakeholder meetings in multiple cities last month to explain it and hear suggestions for change.

The government then used these suggestions to create a number of amendments.

Natural health products will retain their status as a third category separate from food and drugs, he said.

And a definition of natural health products will be added to the bill to reflect that they are unique from drugs.

The bill will also be amended to show that the products do not require the same level of scientific research and evidence that drugs need to get approval, said Goodyear.

“The amount of information required for (natural health products) shall include traditional knowledge and history of use — factors that are unique and clearly different than those used in drugs.”

To allay fears about the powers given to inspectors, amendments will be made “to reflect that an inspector must carry out their duties in a way that is reasonable.”

And while products may be seized to verify or prevent non-compliance with the new regulations, the seizures will be done in a timely manner so as not to hurt the small-businesses.

Even with these amendments, Nigel is still wary of the bill.

“I don’t trust it,” she said.

“If it’s all that and a bag of chips, why are people so upset about it? Why was it done so quietly?”

“Everything was fine and dandy with the (Natural Health Products Directorate) in 2004,” Nigel continued.

“Why did it have to be changed?”