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Homeopaths prepare to launch fight against pending federal policy change

Companies that sell homeopathic products or other so-called “natural” remedies realized the exit of traditional over-the-counter drugs from the market for children’s medication left them with a huge window of opportunity.

Keith Brofsky/©PHOTODISC

Canada's homeopathy community is launching a fight against a pending federal policy change that will prohibit companies from making unsubstantiated claims on certain products aimed at children 12 and under.

Under the new policy, Health Canada will no longer approve any health claims for homeopathic cough, cold and flu products aimed at children unless they are backed by scientific evidence. The change will end the near-monopoly that homeopathic manufacturers have in marketing cough and cold remedies to children. Since 2008, makers of over-the-counter cough and cold medication have not been allowed to market their products to children because of reports of serious injuries and deaths related to dosing problems with those products.

Proponents of evidence-based medicine say the change is long overdue, but still does not go far enough because it does not apply to other products marketed to young people or to any products targeting adults.

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The homeopathic community says the change, which comes into effect as of July, runs counter to Canada's regulations on natural health products and is too restrictive.

The Canadian Consumers Centre for Homeopathy, a national homeopathy advocacy group, has created a petition to stop the change and is urging consumers to "swamp" federal Health Minister Jane Philpott with messages about how well homeopathic remedies work for their children. The group did not respond to a request for comment.

The Canadian College of Homeopathic Medicine, a school that trains homeopaths, shared the petition on its Facebook page, asking the public to spread information about the "restrictive legislation." The college declined an interview request and asked a reporter not to contact it again.

Last year, the Canadian Homeopathic Pharmaceutical Association, which represents manufacturers and distributors, wrote a letter to then-health minister Rona Ambrose asking her to scrap the change so that parents can make "more informed choices." The group also says it is unaware of evidence of products causing any harm.

Homeopathic products are made by taking a molecule of the illness and diluting it in water over and over again. The remaining formula is so dilute that it does not contain any of the disease molecule, but homeopaths say it has the power to fight sickness.

There is no credible scientific evidence to support these claims. Despite this, Health Canada has approved well over 100 homeopathic cough, cold and flu products aimed at children 12 and under.

The products were approved because under Health Canada's rules, natural health products do not have to meet the same safety or efficacy bar as prescription or over-the-counter drugs. For instance, a natural health product can be approved if a manufacturer provides evidence that its ingredients have been in use for at least 50 years. While some companies may submit scientific studies, they are rarely, if ever, the type of high-quality double-blind randomized controlled trials that are typically required for drugs.

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Michael Kruse, chair and interim executive director of Bad Science Watch, an advocacy group, says homeopathic products have had too much freedom for too long. "We certainly had argued from the beginning that any claims that are approved by Health Canada for these products should be scientifically vetted," Kruse said. "If there's no evidence, then they should not be allowed."

Dr. Michael Rieder, chair of the Canadian Pediatric Society's drug therapy committee, said Health Canada's move should not be seen as an attack on all natural health products, but merely a raising of the bar in terms of the quality of claims that companies are allowed to make.

"The regulator is supposed to make sure that any and all health products that are sold are both safe and effective," he said.

Last year, Health Canada also introduced a new requirement for homeopathic nosodes – often referred to by homeopathic practitioners as "alternative vaccines" – to carry a warning label that they are not vaccines and that they cannot prevent infection.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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