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Is This the End of Natural Health Products?

How Health Canada is putting an industry at risk

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If you’re reading this magazine, you likely prioritize your health and well-being and are proactive about taking care of yourself. You educate yourself about ingredients and likely prefer natural and organic ingredients to synthetic and artificial chemicals. Perhaps you make buying choices based on what impact they might have on the planet. As a consumer, you’re discerning and mindful of the choices you make. That’s why you choose natural health products (NHPs) including vitamins, herbal supplements, or homeopathic medicines and why you might prefer organic personal care and cleaning products. And you probably like having options about what you buy.

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It’s an uphill battle

Do you know how difficult it is for the manufacturer of your favourite NHP to get their wares approved by Health Canada and onto store shelves or into your online shopping cart? Lately, the regulatory system at Health Canada is broken, and the entire NHP industry in peril.

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Here’s the backstory

Health Canada has strict protocols in place for the NHPs you buy. NHP manufacturers must provide detailed information about a proposed product, which may include clinical trial data, literature reviews, medicinal ingredients, source, dose, potency, non-medicinal ingredients, and recommended uses. This process is expensive and time intensive for the manufacturer, but it’s required so you can get access to your magnesium supplements. But it’s fair: we all want Canadians to be safe.

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They’re not drugs

In 2014, Health Canada announced the conceptualization of a new self-care framework for consumer health products, aimed at streamlining and updating regulations for certain lower-risk products that had been previously defined as drugs under the Food and Drugs Act.

The goal of the new framework would be to consider the potential risk of a product to ensure it receives the appropriate level of regulatory oversight and to reduce red tape for consumer health products where it makes sense. The NHP industry collectively heaved a deep sigh of relief. It seemed the industry would be protected from over-regulation.

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Relief was premature

Despite the intervening nine years, the new self-care framework has yet to become a reality. Rather than fixing a system that government admits is outdated, Health Canada continues to introduce major regulatory changes using a piecemeal approach, without considering how regulations and policies interact with each other.

This places significant financial burden on the NHP industry and erodes research, innovation, competitiveness, and jobs. New policies create an unlevel playing field for regulated products while opening the door for unapproved and foreign products to make their way into Canadians’ homes.

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The hits keep coming

In May 2023, the government proposed crippling new fees, ostensibly as a cost-recovery mechanism so that taxpayers don’t bear the cost burden of the licensing system. If enacted, these new fees could end innovation and shrink selection on store shelves. You’ve already seen how this works in the grocery store where small brands disappear as conglomerate store brands take over the shelves.

Health Canada has also recently initiated restrictive, inflexible, and costly label changes that could have a negative impact on profit margins, cause packaging sizes to double, increase the amount of packaging, and reduce recyclability. The costs imposed by these label changes may also cause NHP manufacturers to make hard choices about future investments in innovation.

And in the recent federal budget, Health Canada proposed an amendment to the Food and Drugs Act to extend the use of Vanessa’s Law from pharmaceuticals to NHPs. The law is in place to protect consumers in the case of adverse effects from pharmaceutical drugs.

NHPs are subject to their own oversight, determined by the Standing Committee on Health in 2014. Furthermore, introducing such an amendment as a budget item was procedurally incorrect, according to Randi Ptolemy of the Canadian Health Food Association. Instead, in our democratic process, Ptolemy adds, this matter requires proper debate and study in Parliament.

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Like your products?

The never-ending supply of sticky red tape, excessive fees, and haphazard policy creation at Health Canada doesn’t forecast a healthy outlook for NHPs. If you like variety and autonomy in supporting your health, let the government know they’re dropping the ball.

71% of Canadians use NHPs

NHPs are safe, lower-risk products; 71 percent of Canadians use NHPs including vitamins, minerals, toothpaste, sunscreen, deodorant, and fibre to support their well-being.

NHP industry snapshot

  • $5.5 billion in annual sales
  • $2.8 billion in taxable revenue (itself, a cost-recovery stream)
  • 80% are small- to medium-sized companies
  • 54,000 jobs across Canada

NHP industry outlook without Health Canada support

  • Prices will likely increase
  • 1 in 5 of NHP brands is considering leaving Canada
  • 70% say they will remove products from shelves
  • 66% say job loss is likely

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