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Healthy Differences of Opinion

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Healthy Differences of Opinion

A look at the positions of Canada's political parties on natural health and the regulation of natural health products prior to the 2008 federal election.

The election may be over, but accountability has just begun. alive asked the five major parties about their positions on natural health and the future of the now-dead Bill C-51. With a new political landscape in Ottawa, Canadians will want to understand the implications for natural health. Will the promises made during the election campaign be acted upon by our new government?

Liberals

It is Liberal Party policy that government has a role in helping promote public health and disease prevention. It was a Liberal government that created the Public Health Agency of Canada and, in 2005, funded a five-year $300 million plan for an Integrated Strategy on Healthy Living and Chronic Disease, which encouraged healthy eating, healthy weight, and physical activity.

On the question of tax relief for consumers of natural health products, the party would not go beyond pledging that “a Liberal government would be open to discussions with the natural health products community about considerations for those who consume natural health products.”

A statement on party policy asserts: “We firmly believe that Canadians have a fundamental right to access and choice in treatment options regarding their health.” However, the Liberals were unclear on what exactly this meant. They did not say if this right–which all Canadians currently have anyway–would be funded under the Liberals.

Liberals are concerned about some of Bill C-51’s provisions and, prior to the election call, had called for it to be withdrawn. Despite Clement’s pledge to introduce amendments, “the Liberal party is concerned that these amendments have been proposed without adequate consultations with the natural health products community.”

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, speaking during debate on C-51, demanded reassurances for constituents who had written him in vehement opposition to the legislation.

In the same debate, Nova Scotia’s Robert Thibault supported the bill: “I think the principles of this bill are good ... this is an intelligent way of having regulation and ensuring safety.”

PEI’s Wayne Easter spoke in favour of the bill passing second reading, asserting: “In my view of the bill, I do not think it hurts the natural heath products industry or helps it at this point in time.”

Liberals are not making a commitment to introduce their own bill. Rather, they say the party’s intention is to “ensure that Bill C-51 or any replacement legislation will improve the safety and health of Canadians and will not further restrict the use, sale, or distribution of safe natural health products.”

As though this weren’t confusing enough, the Liberals say they are not prepared to be bound by the 2010 deadline for licensing natural health products. However, The 2010 deadline for the Natural Health Product Directorate was imposed by the Liberal majority government in June 2003.

“It is not our deadline ... We would not impose an unrealistic or unreasonable deadline, and if such a deadline were to be imposed by a Conservative government, we would of course call for measures to improve the regulatory framework for drug approvals so people can still have access to safe natural health products.”

New Democrats

New Democrats are committed to integrating alternative medicine and natural health products into Canada’s health care system and, in government, would launch talks with provinces about extending Medicare coverage to “include other services such as dental care, vision care, complementary medicines, and traditional health practitioners.”

A statement on party policy put forward by health critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis says the NDP stands by a recommendation it put forward a decade ago for creation of a National Institute on Alternative Health Care to conduct in-depth research into the benefits of alternative health care.”

Writing in July about natural health products, NDP leader Jack Layton expressed concern about Bill C-51, asserting “a separate category is needed for licensing purposes, as well as for ensuring safety and efficacy.

“We feel that Bill C-51, as it stands, lumps natural health products in with drugs under a category being called therapeutic products which appears to reverse a long-standing position of having a separate regulatory framework.”

The NDP would review the way in which natural health products are dealt with, including their tax treatment, though the party is not prepared, for now, to commit to any specific tax relief measures for natural health product users.

Wacylysia-Leis noted that MP Peter Stoffer, in the past, put forward a private member’s bill to provide insurance coverage for herbal remedies that are substituted for prescription drugs, a bill that she says reflects party policy.

Bill C-51, “by subtly steering NHPs in with drugs, is a step backward. It should be scrapped and new legislation specific to natural health products introduced.”

Further, “The 2010 deadline [for] should be temporarily suspended until revised, more appropriate regulations are developed ... Applications currently in process should be put on hold.

The NDP believes the 2004 regulations relating to licensing deadlines for natural health products needs revamping; and that it could potentially be transferred to the authority of a new natural health products bill.

“I cannot remember an issue where I received more e-mail,” reports Manitoba MP Pat Martin.

Martin was less definitive than his party’s health critic, stating he personally wouldn’t support the bill unless significant amendments are introduced that directly respond to “the legitimate concerns of the very effective and vocal consumer groups who have been bombarding MPs’ offices with their concerns.”

Adds Martin: “We are in agreement with the movement of people who think natural health products should be in their own category, not listed as a drug or a food supplement.

“We are also aware that Big Pharma would like to control and dominate this growing sector and that many view this bill as pandering to their powerful lobby on the Hill.”

Another on the NDP team who has spoken out strongly about reservations regarding C-51 is Toronto area MP Olivia Chow.

Chow, in an August news release, declared: “The NDP has long held the belief that natural health products are fundamental elements in disease prevention and treatment. They don’t fall under the category of food or drugs and should be dealt with in a distinct category that merits a separate regulatory framework to ensure its safety and efficacy.”

Hamilton Mountain NDPer Chris Charlton, on June 10th, told the Commons: “I cannot accept a bill that undermines Canadians’ access to safe, reliable natural health products and one that favours multinational corporate drug interests.” She called on the government to consult more broadly with consumers of natural health care products.

Bloc Que'be'cois

The Bloc did not respond to alive when asked for the party’s position on natural health and the now-dead Bill C-51.

Green Party

“The Green Party of Canada believes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” says Green leader Elizabeth May.

To that end, Greens, in a first year at the helm, would focus on extending health care coverage to include “proven alternative therapies which are less expensive and are often equally as effective as pharmaceuticals.” Such therapies would be ones “shown to have real therapeutic value to patients, in compliance with the regulatory system.”

The party is in favour of granting tax relief to those spending on natural health coverage, and says it would consult with health policy experts to come up with such measures.

The Green leader would oppose a reiteration of Bill C-51 because it “radically alters the Food and Drugs Act in ways that would allow government to control and restrict natural products, including herbs, vitamins, and even foods like blueberries, and this is unacceptable.”

She said the legislation “appears designed to help the pharmaceutical industry stifle competition from natural products.”

Instead, her party “would develop a regulatory framework that would include a separate category for natural health products, one that ensures consumer safety while protecting Canadians’ rights to receive therapy from natural products.”

The party is pledging to “clear the licensing backlog” that exists, but does not specify precisely how.

Conservatives

Conservatives say they’re keen on health prevention and promoting the idea of Canadians taking care of their own health. That was the thinking behind the government’s update of Canada’s Food Guide, the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit, the call for the food industry to voluntarily reduce trans fat levels and $300 million in federal funding for an HPV vaccine to protect young girls from cervical cancer. Conservatives have also created a National Anti-Drug Strategy.

The party is not prepared to commit to offering tax relief for consumers of natural health products because it believes that’s within the purview of provinces.

Health Minister Tony Clement continues to promote C-51, and assures Canadians “there is nothing that is draconian in terms of the effects of pricing and availability in the bill.

“Indeed, our government and our caucus want more natural health products on the marketplace for more choice for Canadians, but we will not stand by if there is a dangerous product.”

Clement fully endorses the consumption of natural health products. “I do embrace this industry. I do think it’s a legitimate branch of medicine and health care. I do believe we should encourage more consumer choice and more consumer options.”

Because there has lately been such a significant public focus on consumer health and safety arising out of tainted imports from China, the Maple Leaf Foods listeria imbroglio, the scare over the pharmaceutical Vioxx, it’s a good bet that a Conservative government would reintroduce their bill in a new Parliament.

The party has offered no commitment to create a separate category under the bill for natural health products, separate and apart from pharmaceuticals.

And Conservatives believe there is no need to fret that a full range of natural health products will not have time to be properly licensed given the 2010 deadline, because it is expected that such products “will move faster through the approvals process,” given their low risk level and historically proven effectiveness.

Conservatives believe a great deal of unnecessary “scaremongering” has surrounded Bill C-51.

Along with Clement, parliamentary Secretary to Health Minister Steven Fletcher, a Winnipeg MP, has acted as Bill C-51’s advocate in Parliament.

BC MP James Lunney was a lone voice of hesitation for Conservatives during a Commons debate last spring, having heard from people in his riding worried about natural health products. Lunney wondered if–in view of the bill’s strong seizure and forfeiture provisions–it was logical to place natural health products in the same category as pharmaceuticals.

Issue: Tax relief for consumers of natural health products

PartyStand
LiberalWould not go beyond pledging that “a Liberal government would be open to discussions with the natural health products community about considerations for those who consume natural health products.”
NDPWould review the way in which natural health products are dealt with, including their tax treatment, though not prepared to commit to any specific tax relief measures for natural health product users.
Bloc Que'be'coisn/a
Green PartyIn a first year at the helm, would focus on extending health care coverage to include “proven alternative therapies which are less expensive and are often equally as effective as pharmaceuticals.”
ConservativeNot prepared to commit to offering tax relief for consumers of natural health products because … that’s within the purview of provinces.

Issue: Legislation to replace Bill C-51

PartyStand
LiberalNo commitment to introduce their own bill. Rather, they say the party’s intention is to “ensure that Bill C-51 or any replacement legislation will improve the safety and health of Canadians and will not further restrict the use, sale, or distribution of safe natural health products.”
NDPBill C-51, “by subtly steering NHPs in with drugs, is a step backward. It should be scrapped and new legislation specific to natural health products introduced.”
Bloc Que'be'coisn/a
Green PartyWould oppose a reiteration of Bill C-51 because it “radically alters the Food and Drugs Act in ways that would allow government to control and restrict natural products, including herbs, vitamins, and even foods like blueberries, and this is unacceptable.”
ConservativeBecause there has lately been such a significant public focus on consumer health and safety arising out of tainted imports from China, the Maple Leaf Foods listeria imbroglio, the scare over the pharmaceutical Vioxx, it’s a good bet that a Conservative government would reintroduce their bill in a new Parliament.

Issue: Preventive Health

PartyStand
LiberalGovernment has a role in helping promote public health and disease prevention.
NDPThe NDP has long held the belief that natural health products are fundamental elements in disease prevention and treatment.
Bloc Que'be'coisn/a
Green PartyThe Green Party of Canada believes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
ConservativeThey’re keen on health prevention and promoting the idea of Canadians taking care of their own health.

Health by the Devil’s Claw

The term “natural health product” refers to everything from vitamins and minerals to herbal teas and plant products. Think echinacea, evening primrose oil, devil’s claw, glucosamine.

While 45 percent of Canadians told pollsters in 2005 they remain unfamiliar with natural health products, 71 percent of poll respondents have reported using them. Among users, 52 percent say they do so in the interests of promoting personal health.

Canada began regulating natural health products on January 1, 2004. After that date such items required a Drug ID Number, or DIN, to be sold. Government regulations at the time declared products would have until January 1, 2010 under the regulations to obtain a Natural Product Number (NPN).

That is, by 2010, all natural health products would have to be assessed by Health Canada and granted market authorization. Assessments take into account such things as good manufacturing practices, clinical trials, and labelling.

Watch for our article in December’s alive explaining the NHPD and NPNs.

The Canadian Health Food Association argues natural health products–listed in the bill as a therapeutic agent, much as pharmaceuticals are? places an unrealistic burden on an industry that manufactures, imports, distributes, and sells products that are low risk.”

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