Julia Rucklidge: Natural Health Bill a bitter pill for nutrient sector

Mental illness has quadrupled over the last two decades. Photo / Getty Images
Mental illness has quadrupled over the last two decades. Photo / Getty Images

Mental illness is on the rise. Figures reveal crisis referrals from 2010 to 2015 have increased, often substantially. The Auckland DHB saw an increase from fewer than 2000 referrals in 2010 to more than 6000 in 2015. Alongside this rise, the number of people on disability benefits as a direct consequence of an underlying mental illness has quadrupled over the last two decades.

How are we addressing this problem? Our healthcare system operates within a medical model. This means psychiatric medications are typically offered first, followed by therapies and other support. Our reliance on medications is evident from increasing rates of prescriptions. About half a million New Zealanders - one in 10 - take antidepressants.

Given that this medical approach is universal across Western society, one would expect this is working well. Indeed, in some cases, these treatments save lives. But if a treatment is truly effective, shouldn't rates of disorder and disability caused by the illness be decreasing rather than increasing?

Together with international researchers, my lab at the University of Canterbury has been documenting the impact of vitamins and minerals (known collectively as micronutrients) on mental illness. There are dozens of randomised controlled trials showing the benefits of micronutrients for reducing aggression in prisoners, slowing cognitive decline, helping treat depression, stress, anxiety, and ADHD - with minimal side effects.

Any day now, the Natural Health and Supplementary Products Bill - meant to protect the public from harm - will be before Parliament for its final reading.

Billions of micronutrient doses are consumed annually, but no deaths have been attributed to them, according to the 2010 US Poison Control Centre. By contrast, prescription drugs are the third leading cause of death.

The Bill is also meant to ensure research backs any therapeutic claims being made to prevent snake-oil merchants from selling products with misleading claims. But we already have laws to prevent this form of advertising.

In its current form, the Bill will place severe restrictions on the ingredients as well as doses allowed in natural health products. Therapeutic claims for serious conditions will not be allowed, being restricted to medicines only.

The Government claims no bans are intended. If a company wants to distribute a product with nutrients that are not allowed or they want to make a therapeutic claim for a serious condition, they simply have to register it as a medicine. For example, if a product contains more than 100mg of potassium, the proposed daily intake limit, a company must prove potassium has medicinal properties and pay $88,875 to register it. Incidentally, you get more potassium from half a banana.

Who pays for the increased cost of the product due to the increased cost for compliance? You do. And you may need a physician's prescription to get it.

Will companies pay to register natural health products as medicines? Most companies will likely dilute their products and remove others that aren't on the permitted ingredient list to ensure they meet regulations. Some companies report that more than 50 per cent of their products will need to be altered to meet the new rules.

Access to products we research at the University of Canterbury will be threatened. People who rely on these micronutrients to stay well could be damaged by these proposed changes.

Our government has an opportunity to lead the world in embracing and exploring the full potential of nutrients. Instead, this Bill risks shutting down our right to choose how we manage our health. While natural health products should be regulated, they don't carry the same risk as pharmaceutical drugs so there is no justification for introducing pharmaceutical-style regulations. For those we have helped in our research and the thousands of others who benefit from it, let's hope our elected MPs make good decisions for the health of the public when it comes to the final reading.

Clinical psychologist Professor Julia Rucklidge is director of the Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group at the University of Canterbury.

- NZ Herald

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