I remember signing one. My older brother brought it home a couple of years back and asked everyone - my mom, my dad, my friends - to put their signatures on it, so we did.
Who wouldn't pull out a pen at the prospect of losing their favourite naturopathic remedies, as the petition warned would happen if the government had its way? My own herb cabinet had already lost a few items to the war on drugs - if you call health products drugs, which, according to that ink-splotched sheet of paper, is what Health Canada wanted to do.
Now, over a year has passed since the feds went ahead and shuffled all holistic aids into a subset of the drug category, but strangely, the very health community that's been warning Canadians about this move for nearly a decade is split as to whether the sky has fallen.
One camp is calling for a full-out revolt, saying that the health product industry is being driven out of business by the new regs. Another insists that the program, despite some glitches, isn't so bad after all. New petitions are flying on both sides. The question is, which is your average echinacea enthusiast to sign?
As of January 1, 2004, all health products were officially classified as drugs, albeit as a purportedly independent subclass under the Natural Health Product Directorate. Previously, it was a bit of a mish-mash: some products fell under the very loosely regulated food category, and those that made health claims were dumped in with pharmaceuticals - a much more restrictive class.
Now, about 60,000 products available at health food stores across the country have to get licensed if they're going to stay on shelves. So far, 6,000 have applied, but only 450 have been approved while the majority are floating in a murky grey zone. The backlog is long, and the process to get approved complicated.
But many say it's a good thing. Alt meds should have to prove they're safe and effective, right? Even federal NDP health critic Jean Crowder says, "One of the things I hear consistently from people is they want to be able to take health products with a degree of confidence that what they think they're taking is actually in the bottle."
The new system should make things much clearer to consumers. Labels will not only tell you when to take a pill and why, but they'll also have to include any necessary warnings and contraindications, something most supplement junkies will surely welcome. All this on the bases that pre-market reviews will assess for safety, efficacy and quality.
So what's the problem? Why are some groups still freaking? Small herbal product makers and mom-and-pop suppliers say the new regs are sinking their businesses while clearing the floor for big biz, alt-health-style.
"The big boys can afford to wait it out. They have access to the technical expertise to help speed things along, whereas the little guys are having a more difficult time," says Dave McEachern, assistant to MP James Lunney. The Nanaimo-Alberni MP leads the side of the debate that wants the feds to back off from putting supplements in the drug category and consider them foods instead. He even introduced a bill back in early 2003 demanding as much. Now Bill C-420, which is being mulled over in committee, has gathered about 150,000 signatures of support.
Including Jim Strausz's, of B.C.-based Strauss Herbs, maker of Strauss Heart Drops and EZ Breathe. He says the average cost of about $50,000 per product to get pre-market approval for his tinctures will force his company to cut its product line from about 50 to 25. "The bottom half of that list we produce largely at a loss, simply as a service to our customers, and we can't afford to license those items at this time. In the meantime, a lot of customers are going to lose products they depend on."
Same goes for Richard DeSylva's Rockwood, Ontario-based company, the Herb Works, which manufactured capsules, tinctures and ointments for other brands. After spending about $250,000 on trying to secure a licence for his products, he opted to walk away and sell off his equipment, saying there was no end in sight to the muddled approval process. He plans to sue the feds for his losses.
Trueman Tuck, a health store owner and coordinator of Friends of Freedom, an alt-health advocacy group, says consumers should expect to see shelves growing more and more bare as 30 per cent of products could come off the market. "We also expect at least a 10 to 20 per cent increase in prices."
But, adds Tuck, "I'm not playing." He says if companies refuse to make health claims, they can continue to sell their products as foods. "The smart legal advice is telling us [that Health Canada] can't force us [to make claims and enter the drug category]. The companies that are joining us in the resistance movement will actually be freer to do business than they were in the past."
But don't Canadians want level of protection they can't get for products in the food category? Carolyn Dean, author of Death By Modern Medicine, says, "People are being fed scare tactics" about health products. The government wants us to believe its assurances of safety, yet there are 106,000 deaths related to adverse drug reactions in American hospitals every year, and few if any occur from alternative supplements.
But while some health activists are pushing to overturn the current system, others, like the Canadian Health Food Association, which represents about 1,300 health food stores, suppliers and manufacturers, are completely against moving supplements from where they are now. "If we went to back to the food category, then the regulation we spent the last five years developing would fall by the wayside," says Anne Wilkie, CHFA's director of regulatory affairs and quality assurance. "With food you can't make any claims, and we want the ability to make claims and provide dosing information. We would lose a lot of things."
Now the trade group is calling on its members to fire off form letters to Parliament warning that Bill C-420 is irresponsible and could lead to "market chaos."
Adds Wilkie, the new model is much more sympathetic to the alt-health industry. "Prior to the new regulations coming into place, a lot of products did come off the market because they couldn't meet the requirements of the pharmaceutical model - double-blind placebo controlled clinical trials. Now, with the new health product regulations [which also considers traditional uses and peer reviewed studies in its approval process], we're seeing those products come back on the market."
Looking at the stash of calming deadline remedies on my desk, one of which is, ahem, now illegal in Canada, I have to wonder which petition I'd put my name to. Hard to say.