DRUGSTORE REMEDIES: LICENCE TO DECEIVE

The above title is attributed to a recent CBC Marketplace documentary episode on Natural Health Products and Homeopathic Products.  The gist of the program was/is that these products do not have to prove any degree of efficacy to anyone including Health Canada, and that they are still issued a Natural Product Number or NPN by Health Canada.  These products are not subject to any clinical trials whatsoever.  In fact the Marketplace TV hosts actually invented a totally useless product “NIGHTON” and easily obtained a NPN which they then proceeded to create an effective marketing plan around.  A focus group of young mothers shown the product read such words as “effective” and “natural” and “safe” and were convinced they should try it on their children.

The documentary was clearly critical of Health Canada (which the public relies on to protect its health and safety) and the lax attitude it takes in exercising its responsibility to consumers/patients.

Clearly these products are largely useless and sometimes harmful, yet they are tacitly sanctioned by the highest regulatory body in the country.  Clearly this is not in the public’s best interests from a healthcare perspective.  Clearly this is nothing less than deceit by unscrupulous product manufacturers out to make a buck anyway they can.

Nothing new here.  The traveling “snake oil” salesman has been around for well over a hundred years.  People have always been lured by “miracle” cures and “quick fixes”.

The main message that the documentary wants to send was/is that consumers should expect better from the highest health regulatory body in the land.  The focus group, previously mentioned, was shocked when it was told that NIGHTON (its members were convinced enough to try) was totally useless and factious.   “But it has an official NPN on it, issued by Health Canada” the group exclaimed.

And here is the nub of it.  The healthcare consumer has come to rely on certain institutions to protect their interests.  When these institutions fall down on the job, as Health Canada has done here, people lose faith in these institutions very quickly, and so they should if they are incompetent.

But look again at the title of the documentary and see the first word, “drugstore”.   As the TV viewer is shown the documentary, the viewer is dragged across aisle over aisle of drugstore/pharmacy shelving.

The documentary actually shows REXALL several times, though it uses other pharmacies to illustrate its point that these products are widely available and promoted through eye level shelf placement, proximity to other well-known branded OTCs and the use of deceitful language like “natural” which I presume infers that these products are not “unnatural” and available at any pharmacy in the country.

Yes Health Canada has fallen down badly in its responsibility to protect the public from useless, potentially harmful products,  But what about pharmacists?  Are pharmacists, by stocking these products on their shelves not being tacitly complicit in these acts of deceit? …and all in the interest of financial gain and profit?

Consumers are powerfully influenced by the presence of the NPN (sounds official), but are consumers not equally influenced by the environment they purchase the products in?  “If it is being sold in a pharmacy, then it must work” they think.

As, so professed, protectors of patients’ safety, should pharmacists not be doing everything possible to steer patients away from these garbage products and be providing them with safe and effective therapies?

But there it is, the ever present conundrum.  Are pharmacists healthcare professionals or retailers first?  What happens when the consumer approaches the pharmacist with one of these products in his/her hands, without a single molecule of effective ingredient in them, and asks, “Does it work?  And I lump homeopathic and “natural” products together here.

Do you lie to them?  Do you say, “Well, it will do you no harm” as a half-hearted cop out?   Do you say, “The head office guys force me to put it on the shelf”?  Do you say, “The district manager will fire me if I don’t follow the planogram”?   Or “I will lose my Infinity rating if I don’t stock the product as this represents a hole”?    What do you say?

Then think about what you SHOULD say?  And while you are at it, think about where you want to invest the rest of your professional career.  In an environment of “deceit’?

A Mary Oliver quote:   “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”