The Letters to the Editor columns have been spilling over with irate readers concerned about yet another attack on New Zealand’s sovereignty. The cause of all the anger is the proposed Therapeutic Goods Act, which would see a trans-Tasman agency take over the regulation of therapeutic products-a term which includes not only medicines and medical devices, but also complementary medicines and dietary supplements. No one seems too concerned that the new Australia New Zealand Therapeutic Products Authority will be regulating medicines; the fuss is all about what this move will do to the alternative health industry.
The bill’s opponents say about half of the 700 or so alternative remedies and supplements currently on the market would have to be removed from the shelves, and small companies would not be able to afford the $1500 to $50,000 required to register a product. About half the population-some two million people-use such products, and this move would deny them choice, they say. But it’s the notion that this country’s health decisions will be made by a “foreign power” that really seems to have gotten people worked up.
Strictly speaking, this is to be a trans-Tasman authority, with offices in both Wellington and Canberra. But it is clear that this is being driven, at least from the New Zealand side, by assessments in 2000 and 2002 from the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER), showing that the country’s therapeutic products regulatory system was not sustainable. We do not, the NZIER argued, have the technical expertise to continue to evaluate the risks and benefits of increasingly complex and high risk products. It is inevitable, given Australia’s greater population and superior resources, that that country will be the senior partner in the new authority, but this is still a body in which New Zealand will be an active participant.
It makes sense in this increasingly globalised world for countries to share resources in the increasingly complex task of assessing and regulating all that’s on offer, conventional or otherwise, in the health field. It also removes a somewhat anomalous special exemption for the Closer Economic Relations agreements.
The number of products on the shelves has risen exponentially in recent years, and if this move results in some reduction, consumers will still have plenty of choice. We should not bemoan the fact that some treatments which have no demonstrated efficacy will no longer be available. And the regulations apply to only to pre-prepared and manufactured complementary medicine products which are sold off the shelf. They don’t apply to practitioners such as naturopaths, traditional Chinese or Maori healers, and the products they make and supply to individual patients, or to personal imports or herbs cultivated for immediate personal or family use. Those who insist on their right to unproven treatments will not be short of options.