Screenshot taken summer 2011 from here.
For context, see Part 1 and Part 2. I have outlined some general issues with the alternative medicine industry, I have described Bell Lifestyle Products as an example of the apparent futility of Health Canada’s Natural Health Products Database registration, and I will now describe the complaints I submitted to the Advertising Standards Council and Health Canada regarding Bell Lifestyle Products and what action has occurred so far.
Mostly, Bell Lifestyle Products relies on testimonials, calling this “evidence” (for example, see the product details of their bladder pill). Diane Sousa found an example in a local drug store.
From their statement above, it seems that BLP, unlike Big Pharma, provides their products out of the goodness of their hearts. That’s why they only charge 35 bucks for their libido pills.
It’s bold, red, and underlined. Therefore it’s true.
They even have a webpage dedicated to explaining why testimonials are credible. According to their logic, if the person is telling the truth, what they are saying is evidence. But no one is calling these people liars. It’s just that what they are saying is not evidence because people are easily influenced by expectations. That is why we have randomized controlled trials.
As I mentioned in Part 2, Bell Lifestyle Products invites skeptics to contact some of their customers to verify if the testimonials are real, so I did. I tried 13 emails in the Bell Shark Cartilage testimonials list. Two of the emails were invalid, five responded, and six did not respond. All of the responders confirmed that they had indeed provided a testimonial for the product and stated that it worked for them. But so what? None of this tells me whether the product will work for me and certainly doesn’t excuse selling products with claims that are not approved by Health Canada, such as cancer prevention. (Note: BLPs claim of cancer prevention with their prostate pills has since been removed from the website – yay!)
They also rely on endorsements. Names on the website include Dr. Andrew Weil, Dr. Phil McGraw (yes, that Dr. Phil), and several “Master Herbalists”, which I assume is a prestigious degree at Hogwarts because the most prominent Canadian school I found sounds about as credible. Endorsements are indistinguishable from testimonials. That a slightly more recognizable name is attached does not make the claim more true.
As I said in my last article, to get real evidence, the consumer is on their own, as Bell does not provide that information on their website (according to the BLP employee I spoke to on the phone).
I started this process over a year ago. I reported violations in health claims to Health Canada and several advertising issues to the Canadian Ad Standards Council. I was notified by each that they were going to proceed with the investigation … eventually.
The demonstrably enormous amount of time this is taking serves to point out a major shortcoming with Canada’s current consumer protection processes. Who has the time or energy for this?
Also, throughout this entire span, Bell Lifestyle Products’ website has been up and running and their products have still been getting approved. Here is a list of recently-approved products, despite their numerous previous violations being under investigation (thank you, Diane Sousa, for doing the search):
- Liquid Multi-Vitamin Complex NPN 80033748. Approved 2012-07-18.
- Bell Vision Day And Night Capsules NPN 80033445. Approved 2012-07-06.
- Bell Headache Relief Capsules NPN NPN 80033395. Approved 2012-07-05.
- Bell Alrg Eze Capsules NPN 80031709. Approved 2012-04-25.
- Bell Calcium Buildup Capsules NPN 80030888. Approved 2012-03-27.
- Bell P.M.S. Capsules NPN 80030632. Approved 2012-03-20.
- Bell Cts Capsules NPN 80030480. Approved 2012-03-13.
- Bell Curcumin With Cayenne Pepper Capsules NPN 80030470. Approved 2012-03-13.
- Bell Bone Density With Calcium NPN 80030388. Approved 2012-03-10.
- Bell H.L. Capsules NPN 80029779. Approved 2012-02-22.
Some hiccups in this process were the fact that I had to report different violations to different groups, as Canada does not have a single entity for health consumer issues. As a result, the investigation was slowed by ASC and Health Canada each having to ask me for consent to share my information with each other, even though each knew that I had submitted concurrent complaints to the other. In fact, the ASC seemed to be hesitant with respect to my claim, given the substantial Health Canada violations, even though I clearly outlined — point by point — exactly which issues were specifically in violation of ASC standards. As Dianne Sousa also experienced, ASC is needlessly hesitant when it comes to health claims. While Health Canada does regulate specific aspects of a health claim in specific ways, either a company is violating ad standards or they aren’t. If they are, the complaint is within the mandate of the ASC.
Another option for reporting questionable commercial practices is the Competition Bureau, but they do not provide updates on their investigations.
The Canadian consumer protection process is not an easy system to navigate, especially for violations on a grand scale (such as dozens of products with varying levels of legality, as noted in separate databases that may not contain complete product information). It is cumbersome for the consumer and is lengthy and time-consuming for the responsible agencies.
To their credit, despite the unmanageable bureaucracy, both Health Canada and the ASC responded that they would investigate and upon looking at BLP’s website recently, it appears that several objectionable claims have been removed. Yay!
But BLP now boasts “Health Canada approved claims” for at least one of their products. I didn’t believe this for a second, because I recognized the product and remembered that is actually had an exemption number, which does not have public associated claims like an approved product does. The results of my verification search showed that its exemption number is now not valid. So rather than the product being removed, as by law, they have bolstered their claims and added Health Canada’s name to them.
So if anything, the situation has gotten a bit worse. Though ASC seems to have taken action to rid the website of some objectionable advertising claims, BLP has doubled down on health claims.
The UK has taken steps to make consumer complaints easier. Simon Perry developed a Chrome plugin that allows a user to identify specific violations and submit with only a few minutes of work. A similar plugin now exists for Canada, but so far it only goes to the Competition Bureau. As I said, this is not ideal, because their investigations are kept secret and they very rarely announce decisions with respect to health claims (their ruling on Nivea seems to be the most recent, according to this list of announcements).
But what of Health Canada? I intend to follow up on this and indicate their new Health Canada claims. We’ll see what happens. The Competition Bureau is an undesirable option due to the secrecy, but I haven’t had follow-up from the ASC or Health Canada either. It seems that the complaint process in Canada requires constant vigilance on the part of the complainant.
One of the best weapons in the consumer’s arsenal is the power of complaint. Or at least it’s supposed to be. But the Canadian complaint system for health products is appallingly insufficient, cumbersome, and exhausting. The state of consumer protection in Canada in its current form is simply unacceptable.
If Canadians see claims that are dubious or, at worst, potentially dangerous, they can report the incidents to proper authorities (guidelines here). In some cases, a dubious product may be recalled or a company may be forced to alter their claims to be more appropriate. But this is an ever vigilant process, which most people realistically don’t have time for.
If we want this to change, the only avenue left is lobbying the government for reform of consumer protection processes. In the meantime, the more people that complain through the proper channels, the better. Consumer complaints are the only process we have to hold companies accountable for violating the advertising regulations that are in place specifically to protect us from predatory marketing practices. The system is broken, but it’s all we currently we have to work with.
[The following sentence was accidentally clipped from the original posting. Apologies.] I want to remind everyone that Health Canada’s NHPD says that products are approved for safety and efficacy.