New regulations for natural health products (NHPs) will mean increased costs and decreased choice for Canadians, Edmonton critics say.

Many health practitioners, business owners, consumers and Conservative MPs say the new rules, which extend Health Canada’s authority over NHPs, are an attack on personal freedom, and will put more pressure on Canada’s health-care system.

“A number of people in the country rely on those products to prevent and maintain their health and well-being, and they’re not going to have access to these anymore,” said Robert Rogers, an Edmonton-based herbalist, teacher, author of 62 books, and former chair of the Capital Health Community Health Council.

Rogers said it will be difficult for many smaller companies to continue under the new rules.

”You’re fighting against the system that likes drugs and surgery and there’s little recognition of the competence and the huge healing ability of a lot of these supplements if they’re done properly.”

Robert Rogers says it will be difficult for many small companies to continue. (Submitted by Robert Rogers)

Natural health products in Canada have been regulated by Health Canada since 2004.

Health Canada argues the new rules are needed to improve the safety of therapeutic products including supplements and herbal remedies.

The new rules were included in the Liberal government’s omnibus budget bill that passed on June 22. 

The changes follow new labelling requirements introduced last year. Health Canada is also proposing industry fees to recoup regulation costs. 

The legislation extends the Protecting Canadians from Unsafe Drugs Act, or Vanessa’s Law, to natural health products. The act came into effect in 2014 and previously only applied to health products such as prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs and vaccines. 

Authorities can now order a recall and label change if health and safety risks are identified with increased fines of up to $5 million for non-compliance.

“These authorities would generally only be used when a serious risk is identified and only if a company refused to take voluntary actions to address the risk,” Joshua Coke, a spokesperson for Health Canada, wrote in an email.

The policies have prompted thousands of Canadians to sign petitions in protest. One petition submitted to Parliament earlier this month drew 14,952 signatures, including 2,595 from Alberta.

‘Assault on the natural health industry’

Tim Uppal, Edmonton Mill Woods MP and deputy leader of the Conservative Party, said he has recently heard from many concerned constituents who rely on NHPs to care for themselves and loved ones.

He described the changes as unrealistic and costly when ”existing regulations are already sufficient in keeping Canadians safe.”

Photo of Tim Uppal in front of his campaign sign.
MP Tim Uppal says existing regulations are sufficient to keep Canadians safe. (CBC)

“My Conservative colleagues and I oppose this assault on the natural health industry,” Uppal wrote in an email to CBC.

“Ultimately, these burdensome and unfair policies will raise the cost of NHPs and many products will disappear entirely from Canadian shelves.” 

Unauthorized claims

In 2021, a report on natural health products by Canada’s auditor general found that 56 per cent of 75 examined licensed products on Canadian websites contained claims unauthorized by Health Canada, an incomplete list of risks and other misleading label information.

The report cites a 2010 public opinion poll showing roughly 70 per cent of Canadians regularly use natural products to maintain health and prevent minor health problems.

“Overall, Health Canada’s oversight of natural health products available for sale in Canada fell short of ensuring that products were safe and effective,” the report concluded.

Those concerns are echoed by the Canadian Pharmacy Association (CPA).

At a standing committee in May, Barry Power, the CPA’s chief pharmacist officer told senators the legislative changes would help Canadians make better-informed decisions.

But Aaron Skelton, president of the Canadian Health Food Association, said the expensive regulatory changes lacked meaningful consultation — something Health Canada disputes.

“As an industry, we continue to support regulation and legislation that protect Canadians, are transparent and developed in a responsible and appropriate manner,” Skelton said.

Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor at the University of Calgary specializing in health law and policy, said historically, regulators have struggled to arrive at the appropriate level of regulation.

“Natural health products are often perceived as being less harmful than say pharmaceuticals, and indeed that is often the case,” Hardcastle said. “Certainly there have been concerns with certain natural health products being associated with a variety of issues.”

She said the new policies won’t require NHPs to undergo the expensive, rigorous pre-approval process required for pharmaceuticals.

“It also isn’t clear that these costs are going to be as expensive as some of these producers are suggesting,” Hardcastle said. “That’s a very common argument that’s made to try to discourage the government from regulating.”