It speaks volumes that a law change to regulate the natural health market by requiring products to be safe, accurately labelled and of a high quality has achieved cross-party support. And that it has the backing of the industry body, Natural Health Products NZ. A seemingly endless variety of exotic products is now being marketed as remedies for illnesses real and imagined. There is an equal divide between those who would seek to regulate them stringently and those who maintain they do not require close regulation. In such circumstances, the attainment of a largely acceptable middle ground represents a major plus for the parliamentary process.
The bill that has emerged from a select committee establishes a regulator for commercial natural health products from January 2014. The ingredients, health claims and evidence for such products will be assessed, and a list of banned ingredients drawn up. Companies will be given a transition period to meet the standards demanded by the authority, and will have to publish the basis of any health claims on labels. The label will also have to say whether the benefits are based on science or traditional knowledge.
In welcoming the changes, Natural Health Products NZ noted that 80 per cent of the $1 billion natural health market was in exports, and that the new regime would give overseas buyers greater confidence in New Zealand products.
It can be argued that natural health products are not as potent as orthodox medicines, which are artificial chemical compounds with risks proportionate to their efficacy. Therefore, little harm comes from them claiming health benefits without having to undergo the years of rigorous and expensive trials required of medicines before they can be put on the market. Or in allowing people who believe in their benefits to pay for them.
That, however, is also an argument for a continued limited degree of transparency and lack of accountability. That state has undoubtedly encouraged what Green Party spokeswoman Mojo Mathers describes as "backyard cowboy operators and dodgy imports". The new legislation will reward products that the makers have subjected to genuine research. Consumers, for their part, will be better protected by labels that specify whether claimed health benefits are based on science or, more problematically, traditional knowledge.
The main objection to the planned changes appears to be the costs and barriers for makers and users of low-cost products such as herbal tea. This, however, is a balanced approach, with due regard paid to the demands of export markets. It should also be noted that far more draconian responses have been suggested. Some, for example, have suggested that manufacturers should have to prove their products are objectively capable of curing or alleviating identifiable illnesses. This would entail enormous costs.
The bill's approach acknowledges that natural health products are not so potent that they require such close regulation. But it also provides a transparency that benefits consumers. They will have more objective information than that typically provided by people who swear to the efficacy of a product. The main losers will be producers with poor manufacturing standards or whose products cannot withstand a more objective glare. It can only be good that consumers have more information on which to make their judgment when they buy them.