The Natural Health Products Bill passed its first reading in Parliament in September. It appears to have wide support across most political parties, and those who follow such things expect it to pass into law next year without significant amendment (
The bill proposes regulation of a wide range of alternative health modalities including traditional treatments, herbal and homeopathic remedies, and dietary supplements. Therapies based on manipulating ‘energy flows’ or spinal subluxations are not covered, nor are any ingredients intended for administration to the eye or ear, or by injection. Leaving aside that some of what is covered would be better described as supernatural rather than natural, the new legislation brings a degree of control over a sector which until now has been something of an afterthought in the Dietary Supplements Regulations 1985 or the Medicines Act 1981; these are now considered out of date in any case. It provides for a list of prohibited ingredients, and an open-ended list of ingredients that can be used.

There is plenty about the bill that skeptics would probably support. Natural health products are an industry estimated to turn over about $760 million annually in this country, so they definitely deserve greater oversight. There have been horror stories of, for example, so-called traditional Chinese medicines containing dangerous levels of potent drugs, and more stringent controls on permitted ingredients and labelling should reduce this risk.

But it remains to be seen how the law will work in practice. One issue is that there will be no restrictions on the nature of therapeutic claims that may be made for a product. Sponsors must declare they hold evidence to support the claims made (and supply it if requested), but one wonders how this is supposed to work for homeopathic remedies, which contain little or no trace of any allegedly therapeutic product, and which have consistently failed to be substantiated in properly run trials. What standards of evidence will actually be required? The new Natural Health Products Regulatory Authority may exempt an entire category of products from the requirement to have a product notification (needed before they can be distributed), and it will be interesting to see how this clause is applied.

The bill also requires the Authority to establish an advisory committee of up to eight persons to provide them with expert advice. Each member must have expertise in an area relating to natural health products, so will this committee be stacked with practitioners, who may have rather generous interpretations of the law’s provisions? This story will be something for skeptics to keep a close eye on as it unfolds over the next few years.

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