Get your Decoder: Health Canada’s proposed changes may be dangerous to your health

The Harper government is expected any time now to introduce more industry-friendly prescription drug regulations.Secret Decoder Ring

Health Canada conducted three “Technical Discussions on Regulatory Modernization” in the fall of 2010 and winter of 2011. The Department’s recipe for public consultation on pharmaceutical issues consists of 1/3 drug industry reps; 1/3 health professionals funded by the drug industry; and 1/3 disease groups funded by the drug industry. For balance, a handful of disinterested participants are thrown in the mix.

There is a long list of terms used by Health Canada (going back to 1994) to trick the public into thinking changes that weaken health protection laws and regulations are somehow going to strengthen safety.

Whatever terms they use to describe their objectives, they are all written in language designed to deceive. Here are ten examples:

1. “Transition” was a word used to describe an attempt to get rid of safety rights in the Food & Drugs Act. The attempt failed after we (the Canadian Health Coalition) decoded “transition” as meaning abdication of legal duty.

2. “Health Protection” was the name of the Health Canada branch charged with food and drug safety. The name was changed to the Health Product and Food Branch after they abandoned their duty to protect the public.

3. “Risk Management” was the name of the policy that replaced the precautionary principle. This approach involves managing the damage (illness and death) after the fact instead of preventing harm in the first place.

4. “Safety First” was the name of a subsequent attempt to replace the Food & Drugs Act. They dropped this after we pointed out that the proposals actually put risk first and safety last.

5. “General Safety Requirement” was a key proposal to sell deregulation but was dropped after we pointed out that the only thing not required in the general safety requirement was evidence of safety.

6. “Smart Regulation” was a term used by Health Canada to mask its deregulation agenda. It was dropped after we pointed out that the Oxford dictionary defines smart as “severe enough to cause pain”, and “selfishly clever to verge of dishonesty”.

7. “Modernization” is a word used to describe proposed changes to regulation and legislation governing food and drug safety. It really means a return to the bad old days before government regulation to protect public health and safety.

8. “Transparency” is a favourite word at Health Canada these days. It is used to describe proposals that would enshrine secrecy and commercial confidentiality into law.

9. “Progressive Licensing” is an industry-invented term adopted by Health Canada. It actually means that new drugs will be approved with greater speed and less evidence of safety or effectiveness. The public is used as guinea pigs and the drug pulled off the market only if the body count goes high enough (as it did with Vioxx).

10. “Interests and Affiliations” is the new concept used to legitimize conflict of interest by saying that everyone has a seat at the table and we need the views of industry. It also provides cover for industry funded groups who describe themselves as “patient groups.”

The main point is don’t be fooled by Health Canada’s double-speak and to use a decoder when they announce proposed regulatory changes for pharmaceuticals.

Never focus on what they say they are doing, but on what they are in fact doing.

About the Contributor

Michael McBane is national coordinator of the Canadian Health Coalition in Ottawa.