Key Points:

The Therapeutics Bill provides for the establishment of a common drug agency for Australia and New Zealand. It implements an agreement between the Australian and New Zealand governments of December 2003.

Closer ties with Australia have long been established policy. A common drug agency surely makes sense.

Why has this bill become so controversial? Why did the members of the select committee which reported on the bill a few days ago, fail to agree? Answer: because the proposed new drug agency will adopt existing Australian practice, and for the first time license in New Zealand supplementary medicines, such as dietary supplements sold through health shops.

The Green Party would never put a grain of genetically modified food in its mouth, yet it is apparently happy to consume endless amounts of untested alternative medicine. Green MP Sue Kedgley has launched a campaign to exclude alternative medicines from the new licensing regime.

Much of the opposition before the select committee to the regulation of alternative medicines, was that the products pose little risk and do not require an elaborate licensing regime.

The US Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning to consumers to avoid using Chinese toothpaste because it may contain a poisonous chemical used in anti-freeze. Monitoring even low-risk products like toothpaste occasionally identifies problems.

On June 7, Shanghai prosecutors charged a brother and sister with producing and selling millions of yuan worth of fake health-food products in China. China's food and drug watchdog has issued a blacklist naming 20 companies involved in the mail-order sale of fake drugs.

Alternative medicines from many countries (including China) are on sale in New Zealand health food shops. Who is checking their quality here? Answer: nobody.

Ribena has recently been in the news. Made by an international drug company, Ribena lacked its advertised vitamins. Who discovered the problem? Answer: schoolgirls in a school science experiment.

How many other New Zealand health products are mis-advertised? Nobody knows.

A couple of years ago Pan Pharmaceuticals was in the news in Australia. Pan was a large Australian company which made pills sold through many health shops. The company was closed down because its products were not genuine. One employee went to jail.

The problem of fake medicines is not confined to Asia. Because Australia already licensed alternative medicines, it detected the problem.

Pharmaceuticals are taken when you are sick. Often they are used for a short period. Food supplements can be taken over many years. People taking food supplements are typically exposed for longer periods to any impurities they contain, which is all the more reason to monitor their safety.

A Wellington woman with serious health symptoms had chewed four packs of artificially sweetened chewing gum daily. Her health problems were attributed to the sweetener and disappeared after she gave up gum.

Green MP Sue Kedgley called for products containing artificial sweetener to be labelled with warnings. She said the Government had a duty to require this information be provided. Well, hello. Isn't that the major objective of the Therapeutics Bill she has campaigned against - monitoring unregulated food additives and alternative medicines?

Pharmaceutical companies constantly strive for higher standards of purity and safety. It is time New Zealand importers and manufacturers of alternative medicines did the same. Britain, Canada and Australia - most developed countries already license alternative medicines.

For Parliament to reject the Therapeutics Bill would be a slap in the face for CER; a step out of line with OECD good medical practice; and a detriment to the long-term health and wellbeing of our citizens. Why then, has the political campaign against the Therapeutics Bill gained traction? Answer: because the Government pays for most pharmaceuticals. Voters pay their $3 prescription fee and have no idea of the high pharmaceutical compliance costs included in the price of drugs.

However, those same voters pay for their own alternative medicines. If the Therapeutics Bill is passed voters will have to pay more out of their own pocket to meet the cost of higher standards imposed on alternative medicines by the bill.

A number of alternative medicines sold in this country are already registered in Australia. Those will not go up in price. But unregistered alternative products on sale here now are likely to increase in price, as the cost in making them safe will be passed on to consumers. Voters rarely support legislation which sees them paying more.

It surely makes no sense to regulate pharmaceuticals and alternative medicines differently, because voters pay indirectly for the safety of pharmaceuticals (through their taxes), while they will pay directly for increased safety of alternative medicines out of their own pockets. Hopefully, Parliament will pass the Therapeutics Bill.

* David Schnauer, an Auckland lawyer, works in the health sector. He is a director of a New Zealand pharmaceutical company.