Back in March, I embarked on an experiment to test Canada’s consumer protection mechanisms as they relate to natural health products. As you may recall, I made three simultaneous complaints about a product called Provize to Health Canada, Ad Standards Canada, and the Competition Bureau. Provize is a natural health product that claims to prevent prostate cancer, yet provides only unpublished test tube data as evidence.
My assessment was that this fell afoul of the rules of all three regulatory bodies, and I was curious to see how each would respond. All three complaints were made on March 28th, and pro forma acknowledgments came in that day (Ad Standards), March 30th (Competition Bureau), and April 13th (Health Canada).
I wasn’t expecting anything further from the Competition Bureau, as prior research had told me that their investigations are done on behalf of all Canadians, and therefore they don’t provide feedback to the complainants themselves. But the back and forth with Ad Standards and Health Canada has been extremely instructive, and points to just how incomplete our consumer protections are. Here’s what happened:
Ad Standards was the first to provide a substantive response on April 6th, as follows:
Since this appears to involve unauthorized claims related to prostate cancer (a disease referred to in Schedule A of the Food and Drugs Act), the adjudication of your complaint does not fall within ASC’s scope of responsibility. However, with your permission, we will forward your complaint to Health Canada who is responsible for dealing with this type of complaint as per established procedures.
I spoke to them shortly after receiving this letter, and I did understand their position. They’re generalists, and not really qualified to assess medical evidence. Since there’s a regulatory body that is qualified, such a referral makes sense. Of course, I had already submitted the complaint to Health Canada, so I told them that a referral wasn’t necessary at that time.
It was more than a month later when I received Health Canada’s response on May 12th. Can you guess what they said? I’ll be you can:
Complaints involving consumer-directed advertising of exemption number issued natural health products for human use are processed by Advertising Standards Canada (ASC).
Please refer to the informational link below for further details found on the Health Canada Web site for your information and reference: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/advert-publicit/pol/declar_nhp-psn-eng.php
As such, you are requested to complete and return the Consent to Release of Information form attached, and return it to my attention so that our office can refer this complaint to ASC for adequate processing.
The link they reference does indeed indicate that Health Canada has subordinated complaint adjudication to Ad Standards Canada for products that have received Exemption Numbers, as Provize has. Too bad Ad Standards Canada doesn’t seem to be aware of this, and are referring me back to Health Canada.
For fun (and in a fit of admitted immaturity), I did take each agency up on their offer to refer my file to the other, in an attempt to create some sort of elegant regulatory ouroboros. But knowing that would just bring more delay, and realizing that ultimately Health Canada would have to own this, I decided also to call them to see if I could clear this up more expediently.
On May 19th I spoke to Penny at Health Canada, the woman who had sent the above email, and who turned out to just be a liaison that hadn’t made the decision and couldn’t really justify it. Frustrated, I was probably less polite than I should have been, but eventually pulled back, apologized, and asked her to have someone who could answer my questions call me. She followed up with a note introducing me to Ingrid Popesku, Senior Compliance Officer with Western Operations Centre of the Health Products and Food Inspectorate, who would be handling the file.
Turns out that Ingrid didn’t get the message from Penny that my complaint shouldn’t really be sent to Ad Standards, because when she finally called me back five weeks later, on June 27th, it was after referring it out and receiving word back from Ad Standards that they had already passed on the file. She told me that Ad Standards had sent it to a different directorate within Health Canada – the Marketed Health Products Directorate. Of course, I already knew that, because the MHPD had sent me a letter on June 8th acknowledging receipt of the complaint from Ad Standards and indicating — finally — that indeed the cancer claims were a problem:
Health Canada has reviewed the Nature’s Method Web site and noted claims to both
prevent and treat prostate cancer. These claims have not been assessed or authorized by Health Canada. Additionally, cancer is listed on Schedule A to the Food and Drugs Act. Schedule A is a list of serious diseases for which prevention, treatment or cure claims may not be advertised to the general public. Because Nature’s Way is located in British Columbia, your complaint is being handled by the Western Operation Centre of the Health Products and Food Branch Inspectorate. The Inspectorate is the branch of Health Canada responsible for compliance and enforcement action for this type of contravention of the health product advertising legislation.
OK, so 3 months in, all roads lead to Rome, right? The complaint I made to Ad Standards had been forwarded to Health Canada’s MHPD, which was forwarding it to the Western Operations Centre of the Food Branch Inspectorate. Conveniently, this was the same group that already had my complaint to Health Canada. No problem? Well, maybe.
Before all of this could be harmonized, Ingrid had to contact a go-between in Ottawa (in the Compliance & Encorcement Directorate) to get in touch with the MHPD and get the file transferred to her. She was literally not allowed to contact them directly, and thus could not tell me when they might talk or what they might do once they did.
So more bureaucratic ping pong. Perfect time to go on vacation.
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Two months had now passed since I last heard from Ingrid, so I decided to put in a call this week. Seems she did get things worked out with the MHPD and had actually made contact with Nature’s Method on July 15th asking them to come into compliance.
“That’s great,” I said. “So what happened then?”
Well, nothing really. Nature’s Method didn’t respond. And the deadline she’d given them had already passed, but no further followup had occurred.
Ingrid promised to resume enforcement activities, and I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she would have done so eventually whether I’d called to prod her or not.
Meanwhile, as of today, Nature’s Method still advertises Provize for prostate cancer protection with impunity: