The Canadian market is awash with claims that some natural health products (NHPs) can treat or cure cancer even though these claims are illegal, a new study from the consumer protection organization Bad Science Watch reveals. Twenty percent of the NHPs surveyed by the group made direct claims (such as “anti-cancerous” or “important in the treatment of breast and colon cancer”), while 30% of the products evaluated made similar but indirect claims (e.g. “promoted by some supplement companies as a treatment or cure for cancer”). These products, it is important to highlight, do not actually treat or cure cancer. These results are not surprising to those of us who keep an eye on the pseudoregulated alternate reality of holistic health and natural supplements, but this study brings concrete numbers to the table to which Health Canada will have to respond.
If you buy echinacea, ginkgo or saw palmetto, and you see that these products display an “NPN” license from Health Canada (for “Natural Product Number”), you may think their efficacy had to be robustly demonstrated to the regulatory agency beforehand, in the same way that pharmaceutical drugs need to show they work within clinical trials. That is not the case. Many NHPs make vague claims such as “helps maintain cardiovascular health”, which puts them in the low-risk category. According to the Health Canada website, lower forms of evidence, like epidemiological studies, pilot studies, and experiments where participants are not blinded and know what they are taking are accepted. Also, traditional uses are permitted (e.g. “Passionflower is traditionally used in Herbal Medicine as a sleep aid”).
You may also think that the manufacturing standards of natural health products are just as stringent as those of pharmaceutical drugs. Again, this is false. If we look at a subset of NHPs, specifically herbal products, we have known for many years that roughly a third of them in North America do not contain the listed herb and/or include herbs not listed on the packaging, which can cause adverse events like drug interactions and allergic reactions.
Now the report from Bad Science Watch adds another layer to the deception by showcasing the commonness of false claims made by NHP sellers for a serious family of diseases: cancer. The group searched for retailers of natural health products within 100 kilometres of major Canadian cities, complemented this search with the Yellow Pages, and landed on the websites of the retailers. These websites were searched for keywords relating to cancer, and a team of 23 volunteers poured over the results to assess the claims that were being made. In total, 558 product pages were evaluated: 113 made direct claims and 116 made indirect claims of curing or treating cancer. A meagre 3 product pages (2.3% of the lot) actually made claims that were respectful of their Health Canada license.
This report has been sent to Health Canada and I can only hope it has an impact on its multiyear deliberations over the restructure of its self-care product framework. Self-care products include natural health products. The system that allows these products onto the marketplace and essentially lets them off the hook with regards to marketed claims is clearly broken. The first phase of the restructure, which will impact the regulation and labeling of these self-care products, is to be announced this spring.
Natural health products may not contain what’s on the label and they may be accompanied by claims that are both false and illegal. You might think that Health Canada can issue a mandatory recall of these products when they are shown to pose a serious or imminent risk, but you would be wrong. While the regulatory agency can do so for drugs and medical devices, it has no authority to act in this way with natural health products. The image I get is of a cop telling roughhousing suspects, “Play nice, eh?” And the people paying the price, as always, are the consumers.
- A new survey by a consumer protection group reveals that many natural health products sold in Canada claim to treat or cure cancer, which is false and illegal
- Natural health products are not regulated the same as drugs in Canada and cannot be recalled by Health Canada if they pose a serious risk to consumers