Regular readers of Skeptic North will know that we have been consistently critical of Health Canada and how it regulates the natural health products industry in Canada. In short, we have argued that the regulation is far too permissive, consequently putting Canadians at unacceptable risk of harm.
Unsurprisingly there are those that disagree. These folks tend to use some type of health freedom argument. Defiant, they say that they have the right to purchase and use any natural health product (NHP) they want and tend to see government regulation as an underhanded way to keep the public consistently sick and Big Pharma rolling in profits. On the extreme end, natural health freedom advocates (NHFA’s) prefer to play deep in the conspiracy ball pit.
NHFA’s are also not above fear mongering and misinformation to advance their goal – full access to any natural health product they choose facilitated through a mostly, if not completely unregulated natural health products industry. Below is a video featuring Nick Mancuso, a Canadian actor who is active in the natural health freedom movement in Canada. Let’s take a look at what he has to say about natural health product regulation in Canada:
Holy shit! Health Canada is using military helicopters and American S.W.A.T. teams to terrify the little old naturopath next door into giving up her green coffee bean capsules and her fresh batch of red palm oil? Well, probably not, but let’s pick through Mancuso’s claims and see what we can make of them.
First, he tells us that Health Canada has restricted your choice of natural products by preventing products from coming to market. Of course, his delivery is entirely alarmist, but this is what he’s trying to tell you. In reality Health Canada has imposed regulation on the manufacturers, importers and distributors of natural health products so that there is some degree of consumer protection. Proponents of health freedom dispute this motivation:
If you’re a Canadian, Health Canada wants two things from you and your family. First, they don’t want you healthy, and second, they want you addicted to pharmaceuticals.
Some of these folks really believe that Health Canada is a sadistic drug pusher.
More sober NHFA’s argue that natural health products have largely been safely used and so any regulation that restricts access to products that a consumer (or their alternative health practitioner) deems beneficial is unfair and potentially harmful. Across the spectrum NHFA’s presume both the inherent safety and efficacy of these products and therefore believe that regulators must prove harm before they can legitimately impose regulation. What about efficacy? They believe that the consumer and their preferred natural health practitioner are in the best position to evaluate this. Because of this certainty natural health freedom advocates will tend to not accept any regulation as being appropriate or legitimate.
No, Health Canada isn’t trying to keep you away from products that are safe and effective. They’re trying to hold the industry to a standard (though it happens to be one so low it’s meaningless) such that the average consumer can have a degree of confidence that they’re not putting their health at risk or being scammed – which they would be in an unregulated market and continue to be under the current system. I think that the average consumer of NHP’s probably assumes that the government has some oversight and would support regulation that keeps both unsafe and ineffective health products off the shelves.
What about Mancuso’s claim that Health Canada is sending out combat ready law enforcement teams to raid vitamin suppliers in the middle of the night? The 8 second long clip (beginning at 1:34 in the video) is heavily padded with stock footage of American S.W.A.T. teams and by itself is impossible to evaluate. I can’t tell if the officers are Canadian and I can’t tell where or when this might have occurred. What I can absolutely tell, is that its inclusion in the video is meant to induce fear and distrust of Health Canada.
A tiny amount of persistent digging online uncovered that the footage is actually from a June 20, 2010 raid on a raw milk vendor in California. Look for it here at about the 3 minute mark. It is unequivocally not footage of a raid on a Canadian vitamin supplier. Mr. Mancuso you are busted.
In terms of Canadian raids occurring “sometimes in the middle of the night”, I believe this in reference to an incident that occurred on September 11, 2000, when the Calgary police erroneously conducted a raid on the home of Nancy Killian. They had a warrant (it’s validity is now disputed) and were looking for a marijuana grow-op. The police entered the home, according to Killian, at 11:15 at night. Nothing about what happened to Ms. Killian and her family had anything whatsoever to do with natural health products.
So why do I make the connection between the raid on Ms. Killian and Mancuso’s claims? She talks about the incident in a documentary titled “A Question of Sovereignty”. The documentary uses her story (though leaving out all the context) to imply that similar shady raids are occurring with increasing frequency to natural health product suppliers all over Canada. Two other raids are also discussed and neither constitute evidence of wrongdoing by Health Canada. The first was on Truehope Nutritional Support, a company that tangled with Health Canada over its sale of a multivitamin that it markets for severe mental health issues. The raid in question happened in 2003, before the current regulations were in place and so was not in any way relevant to raids that might be occurring as a result of the current regulatory scheme.
The second and most relevant to the Mancuso’s claim was conducted by the RCMP and Health Canada inspectors on the morning of January 15, 2009 at the home of naturopath Eldon Dahl, whose company sells a variety of currently licensed natural health products. Dahl maintains that his rights were violated while the search was being conducted and also alleges that Health Canada made no effort to contact the company about compliance concerns prior to the raid. I have no way of evaluating these claims. However, we can get some idea about whether Health Canada had any reason to be concerned about Dahl’s company and products.
In this video Dahl goes over the warrant that was given to him which lists page after page of products that Health Canada was interested in seizing. I did a quick check of the Natural Health Products Database and discovered that his first product licence was issued on September 16, 2009. This means that at the time of the raid, if Dahl was selling any of his products in Canada he was doing so illegally. Indeed this seems to be the case, but on top of that we find out that all of Dahl’s products were adulterated with prescription drugs. But of course, we should just overlook that little bugaboo and concede that since he could sell his unadulterated products legally in the U.S. he can go ahead and just ignore whatever law is in place here. I’ve watched Mr. Dahl give several accounts of the raid (Like here, and here) and I find him to be less than credible on certain points (example: whether a valid warrant was produced) and generally a little clueless on others. The bottom line is that he was not in compliance and it was his responsibility to make himself aware of any and all laws that applied to him. It was not Health Canada’s responsibility. Further, I find it impossible to believe that as a member of the NHP industry he had no idea that his products required licensing. At the time of the raid the regulations had been in place for several years. They were not new.
No, there is no evidence that police raids are regularly occurring and at an increasing rate, nor is there any evidence to suggest that the two identifiable raids that have been conducted in Canada on supplement companies were illegal or at all unnecessary. Moving on…
Much of the concern from the natural health freedom movement concerns the disappearance of products from the market. Mancuso’s claim that 20,000 products have been pulled off the shelves is one I’ve heard before and the implication is that Health Canada is responsible for their physical removal. However this doesn’t hold water. Lawyer Shawn Buckley (who features in the video in defence of Eldon Dahl’s illegal sale of unlicensed and adulterated NHP’s) says that a colleague of his has a list of 20,000 foreign products that are no longer available because of the regulations. If the list of products is indeed that long, I have no idea why I should at all be concerned about products whose manufacturer is unable or unwilling to comply with Canadian law.
Further, unless you are completely in denial about the risks associated with NHP’s, the fact that some products are no longer available is to be expected and desired when regulation is put in place. Imagine if we had a completely unregulated auto market, one where some cars have seat belts and tether anchors for children’s seats and some cars don’t. Mr. Mancuso would be the one making a tacky video bemoaning the loss of these latter cars from car lots across Canada when the government sensibly moves to impose safety regulations.
We actually do know something about how many products are currently available on the market. I’ll quote it directly from Health Canada so that there is no ambiguity:
NHPD has received 68 100 PLAs from January 1, 2004 to March 31, 2012. Of this total, 60 773 (89%) PLAs have been completed, including the issuance of 34 043 Product licences representing 48 691 products. The remaining completed applications were either refused by NHPD or withdrawn by the applicant. In total, 1 709 companies have received a product licence to date. (emphasis theirs)
Apparently just over 1700 companies have been able to comply with the current regulatory scheme and there are tens of thousands of products for consumers to choose from. For an industry that has been targeted by Big Pharma controlled Health Canada for complete destruction they seem to be doing just fine.
No, Health Canada isn’t quietly clearing health food store shelves of thousands of products. In fact, they’re working quite hard to ensure that almost nothing stands in between you and all the magical sugar pills you want.
NHFA’s have to play their cards in such a way that they don’t bring attention to the corollary of free and full access to the products they want – the lack of any formal consequence if companies mislead or are otherwise wrong about their products. They might as well be saying “let the patient beware”. Nick Mancuso is a true believer and is highly motivated to openly advocate for natural health freedom. So motivated that he has apparently convinced himself that he’s doing something good by producing this alarmist and manipulative video. However there’s an inverse relationship between his passion and his credibility. What I’d like to hear from Mancuso and other NHFA’s is what they think appropriate regulation of their industry looks like. What rules are they comfortable playing by? What consumer protection initiatives do they support? If the answers to these questions are “none” and “consumer whaaaaaa?” then I think we can safely return the burden of proof back onto them.