This article was originally from 2006, but a decade on, this process is continuing
Australian plans to steal Kiwis’ health future
She’s the former top agent of a crack Australian unit designed to put tight checks on the use of natural medicines – but the woman who once worked to control such remedies now sends a serious warning to New Zealanders about their health future.
Val Johanson has become so alarmed at what has happened to consumer access to natural remedies such as vitamins, minerals and herbs in Australia that she is now warning New Zealanders that the proposed `Trans Tasman Harmonisation’ would decimate our country’s natural healthcare industry.
As Head of Surveillance in the Australian Government’s Therapeutics Goods Administration, Val’s job was initially to ensure natural medicines were safe and later to help set up a `Trans Tasman Harmonisation’ (TTH) unit to work in both countries.
Successive New Zealand governments have been pushing for nearly a decade to have such legislation adopted in this country.
The Therapeutics Goods Administration has proven extremely heavy handed: no new natural ingredients were permitted in Australia between 1991 and 1999 and companies flaunting legislation face fines of up to $A5.5 million and jail time. In Australia auditors can arrive at a natural health factory at any time and company owners have been forced to spend up to a hundred thousand dollars for their services.
Says Val: “There have been audits in Australia where up to five auditors have arrived unannounced and spent up to a week or more undertaking audits. The hourly rate for one auditor is $A440, plus travel, four star hotel and per diem costs that must be met.
“The regulatory noose has been tightened, the natural health industry is struggling to survive in Australia, the country is losing valuable jobs, companies and tax dollars and consumers are losing access to valuable products.
“The plan is this legislation now be exported wholesale to New Zealand and the potential damage to the natural health industry in New Zealand can’t be overemphasised.”
Val predicts 50 per cent of natural health companies in New Zealand would close, innovation would be stifled, exports significantly reduced and cost of product to consumers would increase should the legislation come into effect here. “Many products would disappear from the shelves as they have done in Australia.”
Australian consumers can’t buy many supplements they once could – or have to purchase them via the internet from overseas companies where quality and safety can’t be verified. Businesses are being forced to operate offshore.
“Currently an internet based business arm in Auckland shipping to Australia is now bigger than the company’s domestic Australian business,” says Val.
It is estimated New Zealanders currently spend around $250 million per year on natural health and wellness product and around 70% of New Zealanders use such remedies.
Val’s bio is stellar. After gaining science degrees she spent 12 years in food regulation, including helping establish what is now Food Standards Australia New Zealand. She established and then headed the Surveillance Unit in the Therapeutics Goods Administration for four years before switching sides and spending the last nine years promoting natural health and wellness across Australia. During this time Val has spent seven years involved in the negotiation of Trans Tasman Harmonisation.
Says Val: “Now I’m focussed exclusively in attempting to rebuild our export market in natural health and wellness products. Initially I could see good value in Trans Tasman Harmonisation as an opportunity to rationalise resources, costs and develop a system that picked up the best of existing Australian and New Zealand systems.
“However I can no longer support the TTH the way it is being proposed. The costs of compliance for natural health companies has escalated to the extent where many companies have shut down, jobs have been lost and more and more companies are moving offshore.”
Val is just one of a groundswell of voices arising from both countries against Trans Tasman Harmonisation. Over the past year a series of Hui have been held on maraes across New Zealand to help stop the legislation being introduced here.
“Recent research has indicated that many of the ancient curatives used in Rongoa or Maori medicine have valid scientific and pharmacology bases,” says Val. “Commercial Rongoa is growing and has the potential to become a significant and valuable part of New Zealand’s unique health and wellness industry.
“However TTH could stop Maori commercialisation of such remedies and impact significantly on Maori intellectual property in this regard.” Maori say the legislation flaunts the Treaty of Waitangi.
Mike Cushman who runs the highly successful Natural Health Laboratories in Auckland which educates doctors on natural remedies and supplies such products nationwide says TTH could kill his $5 million-a-year business.
Currently Natural Health Laboratories introduces 20 new products annually, employs 40 staff and has been pivotal in making natural hormones available in this country.
“Trans Tasman Harmonisation would mean the end of New Zealand’s health sovereignty,” says Mike. “Furthermore it could cost us our future: by the year 2021 diabetes will cost New Zealand $1 billion annually and a whole generation will die before their parents unless radical moves are taken to understand, educate and act on the wellness model of which natural remedies are a fundamental part.”
Just one initiative introduced by Natural Health Laboratories is a project using nutrients to help regress the symptoms of autism which is showing great success.
New Zealand natural health industry veteran Bill Bracks, chairman of the highly successful Comvita company, says the nature and competitiveness of the industry means it is already self-regulating.
“I guess I was a late comer when, at age 60 in 1990, I became a director of the then tiny Comvita. After 16 years of exposure and understanding to the huge potential for wellness and good embodied in natural products, I fail to see why such a powerful medium for the benefit of our population and the population of other countries should be used as a political convenience,” says Bill.
“In reality it should be top of any good government’s agenda to make such a paradigm shift as easy and available as possible and allow it to flourish and grow. My grandchildren will not thank me for making their world a lesser place in the name of politics and profit.
“There can be no doubt that the growing level of knowledge and understanding of human biology around the world is a major threat to the drugs industry based on their illness paradigm that has prevailed over the past 80 years. The wellness paradigm is antithesis to drugs and every sort of political pressure will be brought to bear to protect the once unassailable power of these illness monoliths.”
Professor Ian Brighthope is president of the Australian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine which trains doctors and other health professionals in natural remedies. His hour-long televised talk about the exciting future of natural medicines to assist human health has proven so popular it has repeatedly screened in Australia.
He says: “There is incredible evidence that the current Therapeutic Goods Administration system is continuing to damage the Australian natural medicine industry with cost increases of up to 28 percent, heavy handed audits, product information censorship and export difficulties caused by referring to natural nutrients as `medicines’.
“The Australian public are also suffering. Many dietary and herbal supplements available in New Zealand and elsewhere are not permitted to be manufactured in Australia – despite these substances being safe and effective.”
He says natural health companies operate within “a culture of fear” of TGA. “Most informed observers hold the view that the TGA is controlled by drug companies and their interests.”
• The Therapeutics Goods Administration controls advertising of natural health remedies – proposed controls for New Zealand will extend beyond print and television ads to recorded messages on business phones, letter box drops and product notices on shelves
• To get a simple new natural health remedy on the market can cost an estimated $A55,000 in fees. A more complex product means much higher fees
• It is estimated around 60 per cent of natural remedies currently available in New Zealand supermarkets and health shops will disappear if TTH is enacted
• Compliance costs became so expensive that Solgar Vitamin and Herb, a Division of Wyeth Consumer HealthCare, one of America’s biggest, oldest and most respected natural health companies was forced to close operations in Australia after six years of trying to work under Therapeutics Goods Administration regulations
• An Australian distributor cites Australian natural health products being 35 per cent more costly compared to the same products in the US for no extra gains
• There has been a strong push over the last decade worldwide to set up regulatory barriers for consumer access to low risk natural health products – the USA, UK and European countries have been hard hit by such legislation. Australia’s TGA legislation is regularly described as the most “draconian” of all regulations. Many believe the global push comes from pharmaceutical industry pressure on various governments to stop the commercial threat natural medicines means for their industry.