A former New Democrat MP claims that the Conservative government’s proposed amendments to the Food and Drugs Act are the result of lobbying from big pharmaceutical companies.
Lyle MacWilliam, who represented Okanagan-Shuswap from 1988 to 1993, told the Georgia Straight he formed part of former Liberal health minister Allan Rock’s 17-member transition team that helped set up the Office of Natural Health Products, now the Natural Health Products Directorate, where “the landscape for a new regulatory structure for NHPs arose”. Bill C-51 would amend the Food and Drugs Act and multiple other statutes, and this has MacWilliam worried for the fate of the natural-health-product industry, which he said will be placed under “stringent” and onerous conditions.
Bill C-51 by numbers
> Maximum fine for indictable offence under Food and Drugs Act: $5,000
> Maximum fine for indictable offence proposed in Bill C-51: $5 million
> Maximum prison term for indictable offence under Food and Drugs Act: three years
> Maximum prison term for indictable offence in Bill C-51: two years
> Estimated percentage of natural-product licence applications that fail: 60 percent
Sources: Bill C-51, the Natural Health Products Protection Association
“There are good recommendations when you look at it under the lens of the drug industry, the pharmaceutical model,” MacWilliam said via cellphone from a speaking engagement in Montana. “It is when you look at it under the model of the natural health product that it doesn’t make as much sense. It is the equivalent of using a hammer to squash a fly. It is putting natural health products that are much safer than drugs under a regulatory environment that is very stringent. And I think it might, in the long run, harm the industry, because it makes the hoops pretty high for all the players in the industry to jump through.”
Added MacWilliam: “Big pharma wants to make it as difficult as possible for people to get access to natural health products. The reason I say that is because many NHPs cannot be patented, so there is no profit in it for the drug industry. I think we are seeing the effects of a lobbying effort on behalf of big pharma.”
A day after Health Minister Tony Clement introduced the bill for first reading on April 8 in the House of Commons, Shawn Buckley, president of the Kamloops-based Natural Health Products Protection Association, circulated a 20-page draft discussion paper on the bill. Buckley cites Section 23.8 of the bill, which he claims would see more natural-product licence applications fail because the federal government would give the Natural Health Product directorate greater enforcement powers.
“My estimate is an overall failure rate of 70 percent,” he wrote. “This means that over 60 percent of the natural health products on the market will fail the licensing process and become illegal.”
Speaking by phone from Ottawa, Clement told the Straight the regulations contained in Bill C-51 “are no different than what is currently in place”, then added: “The difference is we are going to add more inspectors and the fines are going to be higher.”
Clement said natural health products “absolutely” can survive under Bill C-51’s conditions.
“I think they are going to thrive,” he added. “What we are going to do is weed out the bad guys, and that will increase credibility and legitimacy of the industry.”
Vancouver Centre Liberal MP Hedy Fry told the Straight she would be “voting in favour of sending the bill to committee”, so it can be scrutinized section by section. Bill C-51 was in second reading as the Straight went to press.
Canada’s Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies, a national association representing more than 50 drug companies, did not make anyone available for an interview by the Straight’s deadline. An official at one large pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca Canada, did return a call but said that the staff member who could speak to C-51 was out of the office.
According to www.stopc51.com/, rallies against the bill are planned in several cities in B.C. and Alberta. The Vancouver rally will take place at Robson Square at 10 a.m. on Saturday (May 10).
How will Bill C-51 affect the natural-health-products sector?
Federal NDP health critic
“That is a question mark for me.”¦The concern from the folks in the natural-products field comes from the fact that there is a change in definition from drugs to therapeutic products. The question everyone is asking, and rightly so, is there must be a reason for this, and what is the government up to?”
Federal health minister
“The bill is aimed for increasing health and safety generally for a number of therapeutic products.”¦I think the vast majority of health products are safe, and I think the manufacturers of those products want Canadians to be healthier and happier. But there are obviously some that don’t meet that test. Those are the ones we would want to target.”
Founder and director, Omira Health Centers
“It will wipe them out. Hundreds of the products that you walk into a store and see on the shelves will be gone. Even without Bill C-51, it is already happening through the legislation that came out in 2004 [the Liberals’ Natural Health Products Regulations]. We have already lost 40 percent of our products. C-51 will accelerate that process.”
“It’s basically forcing consumers to choose conventional medicine over alternative. At the same time, enforcement agents are allowed to throw people in jail without proper judicial process, which again is very non-constitutional. If I was selling, distributing vitamins...they don’t even need a warrant to come into my office, handcuff me, and throw me in jail.”
Drug-policy researcher, University of Victoria
“If they are going to use the pharmaceutical industry’s standard of effectiveness, clinical proof, they [NHP providers] are going to have a lot of trouble reaching that bar. If you can’t patent something, then you can’t get a monopoly profit on it, so where are you going to get your money to do the clinical trial then?”