Why is an update to health supplement law a good thing?

Hopefully you will have seen our updates over the past few weeks, sharing the news that New Zealand First have announced a members’ bill to make changes to the law around health supplements*.  If not, check out the announcement of the new Food (Health Supplements) Amendment Bill and our ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ page.

Some of you might be thinking, ‘health supplements are natural products, no one dies from taking them, why don’t we just leave the law exactly as it is?’ Why is this new proposed law a good thing?

Well, under current law, suppliers cannot tell people about the health benefits of their products, even when there is good quality research to support their claims.  This presents a huge challenge for local suppliers competing in an online market, where offshore suppliers on sites like iHerb and Amazon are widely making these restricted claims.  It also limits New Zealand consumers from receiving information from local suppliers that would help them in making decisions on which products to buy for their health.

This new bill updates the way that health supplements can be marketed and brings clarity to manufacturing standards, using risk-proportionate controls for manufacturers. 

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The carrot and the stick

With any law, you have two tools: a 'stick', for punishing 'bad behaviour', and a 'carrot', for incentivising 'good behaviour'.  Focussing on a stick approach with regulating health supplements poses many challenges and already the current law is not well-enforced.

The reality is that we live in the age of the internet where the number of products being brought into New Zealand by consumers from sites like Amazon and iHerb is very high.  These sites already have a competitive advantage by publishing product testimonials that would be illegal in New Zealand.  A system that is overly restrictive on local suppliers won’t address compliance by consumer-imported products, but will just disadvantage local suppliers further.

There is always a role for the stick - and this bill does have some helpful new measures - but it focuses more on using a carrot approach, by allowing ethical companies to be rewarded for creating high quality products.  The key to achieving this is to allow suppliers to differentiate effective products from less-effective products by making evidence-backed claims about what their products can be used for, and allowing fair use of testimonials. Without being able to do these things, the current system incentivises suppliers to take short-cuts, including reducing ingredient dosages (leading to under-dosage) and using large amounts of ‘fillers’ that can be detrimental to health.  It also discourages investment into research and innovation. 

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The current approach to research

At the moment, it’s illegal for suppliers to share links to research that supports their products, as it implies a health benefit of their product. This restriction applies even to publicly available research and information.  And if a supplier can’t tell you about the research that backs up their product, why would they bother investing into research?  The health supplement industry needs to be actively encouraging research into the benefits of products, to both support existing products and to allow new products to be developed.

Changing the incentive structure will drive suppliers to create higher quality products and encourage research and innovation, without the need for costly compliance measures that would inhibit the financial viability of that quality or innovation.

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Better flow of information

By allowing a system that permits open discussion of the evidence available to support different products, it will not only allow consumers to have informed freedom of choice in making decisions on which products to buy for their health, it will encourage better collaboration between medical professionals and complementary healthcare professionals.  Better information and collaboration can only lead to better health outcomes for New Zealanders (which is hopefully what we’re all trying to work towards).

We’re excited about this bill and the future that it can bring to New Zealand.

For more information on the details of the bill, see our Frequently Asked Questions page.

*Note: The bill uses the term ‘health supplements’ to refer to herbal remedies, traditional medicines, homeopathic remedies and dietary supplements, as well as their synthetic equivalents. Some people in the industry think use of the term ‘supplements’ understates the benefits of the products.  However, this term reflects that the starting point for healing is food as medicine first, and anything else to support health is supplemental – hence ‘health supplements’.