Holland defends new ministerial powers to pull products off the shelves

OTTAWA — The federal health minister needs new powers to unilaterally take dangerous products off the shelves if they're hurting people and not being used as intended, Mark Holland said Wednesday.

He is defending provisions in the government's budget bill, which will allow the minister to put conditions on the sale, advertising, manufacture and importation of health products if he believes they are being used off-label and could be harmful.

"We need to be able to have the powers to act quickly, so that when (tobacco companies) slink out of some new hole, that we can play whack-a-mole with them as fast as their lawyers create new loopholes," Holland said.

The minister called for the powers in response to the sale of nicotine pouches, which are placed between the user's gums and lip.

The Imperial Tobacco version, Zonnic, was approved by Health Canada as an aid to quit smoking, but Holland alleges young people are using it, which is causing a generation of people to get addicted to nicotine.

The Consumer Choice Centre, an advocacy group with loose ties to the tobacco industry, is warning about the potential for ministerial abuse with the new provisions.

The organization, which has previously accepted funding from the industry, says future health ministers could ban other health products for political gain without definitive proof that they actually hurt people.

The group's North American affairs manager, David Clement, pointed to birth control as an example of a product that could theoretically be restricted in the future.

He suggested that if a woman used birth control to regulate her hormones or help control her acne and suffered an adverse effect, such as a blood clot, the minister would have licence to restrict access to the medication.

"That would be all the cover that a health minister would need in order to restrict it, and that is a huge problem," Clement said.

"That's a lot of power in the office of the health minister."

The minister said the group's concerns go to show how desperate tobacco lobbyists are to prevent him from restricting youth access to nicotine pouches.

"You would need a completely dishonest, lying health minister to use that provision dishonestly and with no credibility to try to restrict it," Holland said.

Health Canada is responsible for regulating health products in Canada. The new provisions would only apply if a product is not being used for its intended purpose and the minister believes that to be harmful. But the minister could put conditions on a product even without certainty about the harm it is causing.

"The product is being used in a way that was never intended to be used, which means that we never had an opportunity to evaluate the health risks associated with the way in which it was being used," Holland said.

Health Canada would likely be too slow to respond to put the power solely in the regulator's hands, he said.

The argument is just the latest in the conflict between Holland and Imperial Tobacco over the Zonnic nicotine pouch.

In February, Holland announced his plans to restrict access to the product, as well as the flavours and marketing that can be used.

Imperial Tobacco has denied exploiting any loopholes to get Zonnic on the market, and said it simply applied to Health Canada and got approval.

The company said it feels the minister is ignoring other legal nicotine products, as well as pouches on the market that aren’t regulated.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2024.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press