Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-420, an act to amend the definitions of the Food and Drugs Act, brought forward by my colleague for Nanaimo--Alberni.
The bill addresses an issue that is very important to many of my constituents in Edmonton--Strathcona and indeed many Canadians. If passed, Bill C-420 will categorize natural health products as food, as opposed to drugs. It is important to thank my colleague, the member for Nanaimo--Alberni, for his hard work in preparing the bill.
When I was first elected in 1997, I promised to make natural health products a major issue, and this bill addresses the concerns that so many Canadians have with the potential tightening of regulations when it comes to natural health products.
The issue has been important to my party even before the release of the standing committee's final report on health in 1998. After months of review, the committee chose to recommend the continuation of a paternal federal government attitude protecting Canadians from the unknown evils of natural health products. This unfortunate big brother approach to regulating natural health products, products that the committee's own research determined were safe and which uses were, “well known and pose minimal or no risk of harm”, assumes that Canadians cannot be trusted to do their homework and educate themselves before taking natural health products.
Recently the government recommended creating a third category of natural health products to address questions of how these items should be classified. Manufacturers, distributors and average Canadians using the products have concerns that this increased regulation will limit their freedom of choice and product selection and will cause the costs of these treatments to skyrocket beyond what is affordable.
Canadians deserve greater freedom in their choice of complimentary treatments and natural health products. The government has long talked the talk of promoting and emphasizing wellness and prevention. However, it would seem, that when the time comes to walk the walk and make real, tangible and positive change by allowing greater access to safe, natural preventative health treatments, it is too busy devising new ways to tax the Canadian consumer.
It was the health committee's mandate to “consider the objectives of providing consumers freedom of choice and access to natural health products” while ensuring the quality and safety of such products. There can be no question that public safety must always be the first priority when considering any legislation, particularly as it pertains to a food or drug item. However the heavy regulation of these products is inconsistent with the experiences of Canadians, which have demonstrated overwhelmingly an incredibly safe historical pattern of use regarding natural health products.
The health committee's final report noted that both mortality and morbidity rates associated with natural health products use were negligible in comparison with pharmaceuticals. In fact improper use of prescription drugs by trained professionals is one of the largest causes of death in the United States. The bottom line is that the majority of natural health products are safe if used correctly; that is when used for the appropriate indications and in correct doses.
The report also emphasized that it is not practical, necessary or economically feasible to conduct toxicological studies to establish the safety of most natural health products.
Pharmaceutical testing can cost upwards of $300,000 per product. It is clear that testing the 6,000 natural health products currently on the market is simply not realistic. In fact this type of testing is not even particularly desirable given the unavoidable approval costs that will be passed along to the average consumer. These costs will punish Canadian consumers for using safe products that prevent them from having to go to their general practitioners to get a prescription.
Indeed, unnecessary regulation of these products will only further tax the already strained health care system by causing natural health products users, incapable of paying the inflated prices for these safe and conventional inexpensive products, to give up on accessible forms of preventative medicine.
Canadians almost universally recognize natural health products as foods, certainly not as drugs, especially when consumed in the dosage and form recommended.
The bottom line is that existing emphasis on government control, licensing and regulation of mostly benign consumer products could be greatly simplified. Through Bill C-420, we now have the opportunity to accomplish this end.
My party has recommended an organization structure for regulating natural health products. By regulating these products under the purview of Health Canada's food directorate, I believe we could ensure that these substances are viewed by the professionals with the training and experience best equipped to manage their safe distribution.
The government has taken steps to see that existing enforcement personnel receive adequate natural health product training, and I feel this effort is respectable. Unfortunately however, the committee's final report made recommendations for the allocations of these increased resources of natural health products management under the drug directorate.
These enforcement officers regulate these harmless products under the same discerning criteria as they do with strong and often dangerous prescription drugs. This attitude is consistent with the paternal theme in the final report that refuses to give average Canadians any credit in their own decision making abilities when it comes to natural supplements.
It comes down to this. Canadians should have their choices. This has been the constant theme of my colleague and our party on this side of the House.
Insisting on the further restriction of natural health products simply contradicts every principle Canadian natural health product users have articulated. Like most Canadians, the Canadian Alliance believes there are already too many enforcement personnel barging into health food stores with RCMP escort, seizing computers and raiding store shelves for packets of harmless melatonin or stevia, an herb traditionally used as a natural sweetener.
Surely the Government of Canada has more important things on which to spend taxpayer money. Yet under cost recovery for the new natural health products, the government will insist on extracting more taxpayer money. Natural health products consumers will end up paying more for their products.
In the past positive steps have been taken to address the needs and safety of Canadians who use natural health products through the creation of an NHP advisory panel to allow input from experts who are professionally involved with natural health products. Formal recognition of the need for improved labelling of products was made in 1998 and our party supported that initiative.
With the input of the Standing Committee on Health, there was the creation of an open and accountable appeals process, and finally the greater training of inspectors and enforcement officers on natural health products, which I mentioned earlier.
At the end of the day however, the government has followed its longstanding tradition of ruling on the side of a paternalistic and overarching system of controls and regulations which limit the ability of Canadians to access and make use of natural herbal supplements which have been proven to be harmless. There is no justification for this type of increased regulation of these products.
The bottom line is Canadians correctly assume that natural health products are safe and effective. They believe that decades of safe use should be the primary consideration when determining freedom of access. These Canadians are concerned that the government's new rules and regulations will unnecessarily restrict the access to medications and treatments they have safely used for many years. Ultimately their concerns are justified.
We hope the government will listen, because ultimately, as I have mentioned throughout the theme of my speech, natural health products are a preventive and exciting form of health care, especially because so many Canadians have increasingly been using these products.
It would be a shame to encourage going down the road where we would be banning certain products in the future arbitrarily, which would open up a whole new black market, an area which I did not address, of importing in other ways these sorts of products into the country. Canadians who want these products will get them one way or another.
Let us ensure that we have an open approach to this process so it can work for Canadians, one that is cost effective and, as was mentioned by my colleague from Nanaimo—Alberni, ensures these products do not get classified under the drug category.