"Caveat emptor (buyer beware)" -old Roman saying.
On January 1, 2004, new federal regulations came into effect for the manufacture and sale of natural health products.
This is welcome news for consumers of herbal remedies and natural products who want clear labeling and evidence that the products work. Consumers want to know exactly what they are getting and how effective is it. Without regulations, it’s a free-for-all. Up until now, you could never be sure that a product was even safe, except after other users got sick.
Take Kava, for example. It’s supposed to cure insomnia and anxiety. But after users world-wide developed serious liver problems, Health Canada warned against its use. “No products containing Kava are considered to be safe at this time,” said Micheline Ho of Health Canada.
That didn’t stop some stores in Canada from continuing to sell Kava after the warning. In an unregulated free-market economy, the motto is “sellers do as they please and buyers beware.” Consumers should reasonably expect that they won’t be guinea pigs with some untested product.
Without government regulations, there is no limit to the exaggeration of the product’s claims of effectiveness. Slick advertising and testimonials have been used instead of scientific clinical trials. These users of natural food products advertise how wonderful they feel and how great the products are. This is not a scientific test -such testimonials are the equivalent of rumour and gossip.
New regulations require that health claims are supported by clinical trials. They will assure that consumers get what is on the label. Once assessed by Health Canada, the product label will bear an 8 digit product license number, preceded by the letters “NPN”.
The gold standard for clinical testing is the control group, double blind, random test. That’s where the drug is given to people in one group and a dummy drug is given to those in another. Subjects in both the experimental group and the control groups are selected to be similar in all relevant ways and those giving the drug don’t know who is in which group. And neither the test subjects nor those who evaluate the efficacy of the treatment knows who receives the actual drug. To top it off, the selection of who will receive the drug is random.
This test takes the human factor out of the equation. For example, if evaluators find that all subjects in both groups improve then it’s simply a result of the placebo effect. In other words, subjects improve because they think they will. It doesn’t matter whether they get the “real thing” or not.
The new regulations are generally supported by manufacturers and retailers because the regulations will increase consumer confidence. It’s going to be expensive to scientifically test products. Jim Strauss, of Strauss Herb Company of Kamloops, is not concerned about the new regulations. He told CFJC television that “similar regulations in Australia affected only operations with sales of less than $5 million (January 9, 2004).”
Once Strauss’s products are labeled correctly and proven effective, markets will open that were previously closed. As it now is, some of his products are banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Up until now, herbal remedies have benefited from a suspicion that natural treatments have been suppressed by big global pharmaceutical corporations. Although that’s often a valid suspicion, the conclusion sometimes leads to conspiracy theories in which “they” are out to get “us.”
Such conspiracy theories lead to black and white conclusions in a world that is shades of grey. Natural health products are a big business, just like big corporations. And big global pharmaceuticals develop useful drugs – – often over-priced but useful.
Conspiracy theories assume that people are powerless victims – – up against powerful dark forces. Instead of thinking that the world is conspiring against us, consumers should actively investigate products and become familiar with methods of valid testing. Consumers are not always delusional – – often someone is really out to get them and deceive them. But those deceivers are not always who you think. Consumers need to become proactive and question slick ads, personality-driven marketing, and testimonials. Look for the results of the clinical test and the Health Canada label.
Governments can only do so much in protecting us. Promoters of natural health products, like stock promoters, have an obvious self-interest. There is no replacement for healthy skepticism and personal research.