When the program guide for the Vancouver International Jazz Festival came out this past June, it included advertisements for four dispensaries that illegally sell marijuana. The dispensaries are among the hundred or so pot shops that have opened up throughout the city in the past several years.
Soon after Health Canada caught wind of the ads, the department contacted festival organizers and demanded the ads be pulled from both the online and print versions of the guide. A spokesman for Health Canada told the media that any business promoting the sale of marijuana could face a maximum penalty of $5-million, two years in prison, or both. The organizers, unaware they were illegal, immediately complied.
Prompted by complaints from citizens, Health Canada investigated the dispensary ads in the jazz festival guide and asked local radio station CKNW to pull spots featuring one of its hosts promoting one of the city's pot-shop chains. In recent weeks, Health Minister Rona Ambrose announced that her department would move from its complaint-driven strategy to crack down on marijuana ads, which she says pose a considerable risk to public safety.
However, public-health researcher Barbara Mintzes says the department's history of monitoring and policing the advertising in the pharmaceutical industry has been ineffective. Her research found that since 2003, Health Canada received 359 complaints about direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising and issued no fines or penalties in response to any of these complaints. The former University of British Columbia academic, now teaching at the University of Sydney, recently phoned The Globe and Mail from Australia to talk about Health Canada's mechanisms for dealing with dangerous or false marketing by drug manufacturers.
Health Canada has never issued a penalty to any drug company for violating advertising rules. Why is that?
What we found is this series of complaints that we were able to get all the information on and we looked at the complaint, the advertising and then what Health Canada's reply was. Essentially, we couldn't see any indication of a serious approach to regulation. The complaints were dismissed on a number of grounds, often technical grounds.
So how does the department deal with these advertising complaints?If you look on the Health Canada website, just in general, this is across government agencies, but also specifically what they say is their approach to dealing with problems that arise is to try to negotiate with the company and try to come to some sort of agreement. So it seems to be a very soft approach to regulation. There isn't an indication that regulatory action is being taken, and one of the things that was frustrating … what we found in the responses to those complaints was that the public-health concerns that needed to be raised in the letter tended not to be addressed at all in the responses.
What do you make of Health Canada's promise to crack down on anyone who advertises marijuana?It certainly sounds to me like there's a different standard being applied than to the prescription drug advertising. There's a problem both in terms of natural health products and in terms of marijuana, as well, that is not being produced as a medicine. It's an issue that more has to do with the whole question of legalization of marijuana – whether our laws are really consistent with the social practices. It would be fantastic if Health Canada was proactively monitoring all forms of pharmaceutical prescription medicine advertising and promotion, but it's not only complaint-driven, but it's complaint-driven with a lot of the regulation delegated to external third parties.
How could regulation in this area improve?
A lot of this happens behind closed doors and it's very difficult to know what Health Canada has done to follow up if they have judged an advertising campaign to be illegal in contravention of our law.
This interview has been edited and condensed.