Health Supplement Retailers Make Illegal Claims

In today’s online market, consumers have easy and quick access to a vast range of products like never before, after only a few clicks on a computer or taps on a tablet or smartphone. This includes access to a growing market of Natural Health Products available through online shopping. Health Canada places things like vitamins, minerals, probiotics, homeopathy, and herbs, along with vaguely defined products like Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines, into a broad category that they call Natural Health Products. These products sometimes contain ingredients that, like pharmaceutical drugs, can impact a person’s health, so it is vital that these products are properly regulated to make them safe for online shoppers.

Unlike pharmaceutical companies, which can sell products to treat and cure medical conditions but are not allowed to advertise their products directly to the public, the companies that make and market Natural Health Products are allowed to market their products directly to Canadians, but they are not allowed to claim that their products can be used to treat or cure a medical condition. Natural Health Product manufacturers must also apply for a license from Health Canada to sell their products to Canadians and they must display their license number on their product.

Health Canada and the Canadian government have a number of laws, regulations and procedures in place to protect consumers from fraudulent claims made by companies selling Natural Health Products, including the Food and Drug Act and Health Canada’s NHP Regulations. But do these laws and regulations work? Are the companies that market these products to Canadians following the rules? That’s what consumer protection group Bad Science Watch wanted to find out.

The dedicated volunteer researchers at Bad Science Watch embarked on an ambitious project to determine whether online retailers of Natural Health Products were following the rules. They collected data from the websites of online retailers based in Canadian cities with populations exceeding 100,000 people, focusing on products that claimed to treat and/or cure cancer. After collecting the data, the researchers analysed the websites to determine whether they were following the Health Canada regulations, whether they list their Health Canada license number, and whether they make any claims to cure or treat cancer.

What did the researchers at Bad Science Watch find? The results of this project, called the Marketing of Natural Health Products in Canada, were quite alarming. They found that it was very common for online retailers to ignore Health Canada Regulations: these retailers frequently made claims that their products can cure medical conditions such as cancer. For example, out of a sample of 558 product pages evaluated, a staggering 113 made direct claims of treating or curing cancer, while 166 made indirect claims. Both cases are in violation of the law. Only 3 product pages made claims that were compatible with their Health Canada license. Furthermore, only 13% of the product pages listed their Health Canada license number, despite the requirement to do so.

Canadians who shop online for Natural Health Products may be convinced to buy these products to treat cancer and/or use these products instead of science-based treatments, mistakenly believing them to be healthier or more effective. As previous studies have shown, patients who replace science-based treatments for cancer with Natural Health Products are at a higher risk of dying from their illness. What the Bad Science Watch investigation suggests is that the regulations and laws put in place by the Canadian government are not protecting Canadians from the marketers of Natural Health Products and that stronger, enforceable regulations are needed as soon as possible.

This is our full report:

NHP Marketing in Canada: A Survey of the Online Marketing of Natural Health Products for Cancer Treatment and Cure

Please share the project’s infographic:

NHP Marketing Infographic





Here is our accompanying media release:

Hamilton, Ontario, February 27, 2020 – How often are Canadian manufacturers of natural health products (NHPs) advertising their products online in ways that do not align with their Health Canada licenses? A study conducted by the Canadian science advocacy group Bad Science Watch shows it’s far more often than you might think. In fact, the results are alarming.

Bad Science Watch looked specifically at the frequency of unauthorised claims about treating or curing cancer. Of the evaluated webpages, 20% of the sites were found to list a direct claim of treatment or cure, while 30% made an indirect claim. Only 2.3% of the sites were found to be making direct claims that were authorized by Health Canada.

The results showed that Canadians are exposed to a disturbingly large number of potentially deceptive health product marketing claims that could endanger public health. Given the high prevalence of unauthorised claims, this study raises serious concerns about Health Canada’s monitoring and enforcement of NHP marketing claims.

“This demonstrates the total ineffectiveness of the current NHP regulations,” said Michael Kruse, Bad Science Watch chair, “and supports our call for stronger regulations around approval and enforcement when it comes to natural health products. These companies are more concerned with making money than with the health of Canadians.”

The complete Bad Science Watch study can be found at the link below.

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