'Most of the herbal remedies for sale in Canada may soon be illegal."
"Canadian parents who give their children vitamins could face arrest."
"Federal agents will enter private property and fine mom-and-pop stores $5-million for arbitrary offences."
These are some of the questionable claims being spread online and through e-mail as part of a strident campaign led by the natural-health industry against the federal government's proposed changes to improve the quality and safety of natural health products in Canada.
More than 40,000 people have joined several Facebook groups created to oppose amendments to Canada's Food and Drugs Act, known as Bill C-51. Several websites have popped up in recent weeks asking Canadians to sign petitions and call their members of Parliament to protest against the changes, which they say will ban up to 75 per cent of herbs and vitamins in Canada.
But in reality, medical experts say the changes probably won't have a major impact on the way natural health products are marketed and sold in Canada. In fact, they may finally bring accountability to a largely unregulated industry that has typically been able to market products with little proof of their effectiveness and limited safety guarantees, according to Lloyd Oppel, a physician responsible for health promotion at the British Columbia Medical Association.
"I think what's in here would be considered by many people to be a minimum of protection directed at this industry, an industry that has gotten a pretty free ride so far in terms of the medical claims it has been making," Dr. Oppel said.
The controversy centres on the fact the new rules would classify herbs and vitamins as "therapeutic products" - putting them in the same category as drugs.
Many companies selling herbs and vitamins fear the changes could force them to provide the same level of safety and quality evidence as pharmaceutical companies - requirements that are excessive considering the high level of safety of natural health products, said Penelope Marrett, president and CEO of the Canadian Health Food Association.
"From our perspective, it means the standards of evidence don't fit the nature of low-risk products," Ms. Marrett said.
One company helping to lead the campaign against the new rules is going even further by accusing the federal government of conspiring with drug companies to destroy the booming market for herbs and vitamins in Canada.
"That might seem extreme and bizarre, but the evidence points to it," said Ian Stewart, director of regulatory affairs for Truehope Nutritional Support Ltd., a company that sells a natural health product purported to help people with mental illness. "You're going to have to wonder whether or not the product is going to be removed from the shelf."
Mr. Stewart is part of a group that has developed a website, , that warns Canadians may soon lose the right to buy natural health products because the new law is designed to reject a majority of the herbs and vitamins seeking government approval.
Although the campaign has exploded in popularity on the Internet and has led to rallies in cities across Canada, medical experts who have followed the natural health products industry for years say the arguments are overstated and appear to be based on very literal or exaggerated interpretations of the law.
Health Canada has also emphasized it doesn't plan a crackdown on natural health products - it merely "requires vigilance to ensure that tainted products are found and recalled, that what is on the label in actually in the bottle, and that health claims are supported by evidence," spokesman Paul Duchesne wrote in an e-mail.
Part of the reason for that shift is the fact Health Canada has had to issue numerous recalls of natural health products that contained dangerous substances, including drug ingredients, in recent years. Earlier this month, the department issued a recall for a natural health product that contained excessive levels of iodine.
At the very least, the new rules may finally offer consumers some protection against companies that may sell products with tainted ingredients, according to David Bailey, a pharmacologist and pharmacist at the University of Western Ontario.
"I really think [natural health products]have to be considered as drugs," said Mr. Bailey. "It's a [mistake for]the public to think that because they come from a natural source that they're safe and equally effective. It's just not true."
Despite the fact the federal government created a regulatory body several years ago to ensure the safety of natural health products, Dr. Oppel said, a lack of resources and weak standards means it has little substance. For instance, some natural health products only need to show that they have been used as health aids for many years in order to be approved for use.
Dr. Oppel said the new rules may improve the market for natural health products by assuring consumers that products are safe and effective.
"I hope that it brings about a situation where if people are making medical claims around any product, there is actually good scientific evidence it's true. That would be a stunning change in this industry."