Saturday 4 October 1997

Controls for herbal remedies scrapped

Government must allow freedom of choice, health minister says

Mark Kennedy
The Ottawa Citizen

The federal government is scrapping controversial plans to tighten regulation of herbal remedies and homeopathic products, Health Minister Allan Rock will announce today.

Instead, the government will ask the Commons health committee to examine how natural health products should be regulated in future.

The move follows months of public pressure, particularly in big cities like Vancouver and Toronto, where there is strong support in ethnic communities for herbal remedies.

The issue surfaced when many Liberal MPs went door-knocking during the May election and the pressure hasn't abided.

And so Mr. Rock, surrounded by several Liberal MPs, will make his announcement at a natural food store in Toronto this morning.

"As a government, we must respect and allow room for Canadians' freedom of choice when it comes to natural health products," Mr. Rock says in a draft copy of his remarks. "Canadians should have the broadest range of options available to them.

"At the same time, we must keep in mind our fundamental role as a regulator. The public relies upon Health Canada to advise it of any dangers associated with health products, to ensure their quality and safety."

The government had planned to impose licensing fees on manufacturers, importers, distributors and wholesalers of certain herbal remedies.

It would not have affected those natural products currently classified as food supplements -- only those herbal remedies, vitamins, minerals and homeopathic products that make medicinal claims and are considered by federal regulators to be drugs.

Cabinet decided almost a year ago on the plan and had intended to implement the fees on July 1. After the June 2 election, Rock was appointed to the health portfolio and he delayed the fees until Jan. 1, 1998 to study the matter.

Firms (except retailers) dealing in the products would be required to pay up to 1.5 per cent of gross annual sales. The same fee schedule will be slapped on companies that produce pharmaceuticals.

But advocates of natural health products complained that while the large pharmaceutical companies could easily afford the new fees -- intended to pay for the cost of government inspections of plants and warehouses to ensure cleanliness -- they would not be able to swallow the extra costs.

Before long, misconceptions had arisen about the government's plan. Some critics predicted the retail cost of natural products would skyrocket, while others mistakenly spoke of how the new rules would lead to a squad of federal regulators charging into herbal stores and clearing entire shelves of their products.

As a result, Mr. Rock will announce an indefinite exemption on the licence fees for natural products, although the fees will proceed for pharmaceutical firms.

Mr. Rock wants the committee to make recommendations on the best way for the government to ensure a proper balance between freedom of choice, and safety.

The key issue is whether herbal remedies should be regulated as drugs are. Currently, they are either a food or a drug.

It's hard to get a product classified as a drug: Regulators must be convinced of its safety and efficacy. That would require the company (even the smallest of herbal producers) to spend potentially millions in scientific studies before getting clearance.

Mr. Rock will ask the committee to look at other countries to see how they handle the issue.


Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen