Natural health products are a multi-million dollar business. The market for these products has grown hugely in the last 20 years. But there's widespread agreement that current regulations don't allow effective policing of misleading claims and potentially unsafe products.

Attempts by the previous Labour Government to toughen the law failed to gain cross-party political support: a key sticking point was Labour’s proposal to set up a joint regulatory body with Australia.

An agreement between National and the Greens has resulted in a new round of proposals for a New Zealand-based regulatory system. Drafting of a Natural Health Products Bill is expected to begin this year and could become law in 2011.

Product problems

Natural health products cover everything from vitamin supplements to herbal remedies. Many products contain ingredients that have been traditionally used – and their safety risks are generally much lower than those of pharmaceutical medicines.

But adulterated and poor-quality products can find their way on to the market. Medsafe recently ordered a recall of four erectile-dysfunction products sold at health stores and pharmacies. The pills were adulterated with the prescription medicine tadalafil, known to interfere with heart medications. Medsafe says the use of tadalafil can be fatal for some people.

Chinese herbal weight-loss and “viagra” medicines have also been pulled from sale after they were found to contain undeclared prescription drugs. The weight-loss product contained sibutramine and the herbal viagra contained the drug sildenafil. Both drugs can pose safety risks for consumers if taken without medical supervision.

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