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Grassroots protest turns out to be “astroturf”

In this week’s eSkeptic, Daniel Loxton digs into a protest campaign that is fighting to block enforcement of Canada’s purity, safety, and labeling laws for natural health products — and discovers a shadowy business interest behind the faux consumer watchdog site organizing those protests.


pills on a moustrap

A Triumph of Astroturf?

How a consumer protection law may be defeated
by a faux consumer watchdog campaign

by Daniel Loxton

Is it possible for a vested business interest to derail national legislation by posing as a consumer watchdog? We’ll soon learn whether a shadowy mail order drug company’s fierce, artificial grassroots campaign will rob the Canadian people of an important public safety law.

In April 2008, Canada’s federal Parliament began considering a proposed law1Bill C-51 — that would revise the body of laws regulating food and drugs in Canada (the Food and Drugs Act). Of particular interest to skeptics, C-51 would finally allow Canadian federal health authorities (Health Canada) to enforce existing laws2 that require substances sold under the multi-billion-dollar “natural health products” umbrella to be safe, unadulterated, honestly labeled, and marketed with supportable claims.

Although regulated in Canada since 2004, natural health products nevertheless enjoy a hothouse climate of easy licensing, minimal oversight, and toothless enforcement — which C-51 is designed to improve. “For instance,” Health Canada noted in a recent press release, “in dealing with cases of counterfeit [drugs], Health Canada has been limited to imposing a maximum fine of $5,000.”3

Think about that for a moment. The U.S. Federal Drug Administration estimates that “upwards of 10% of drugs worldwide are counterfeit, and in some countries more than 50% of the drug supply is made up of counterfeit drugs.”4 Counterfeits may contain any active ingredients in any amount, poison, or no active ingredient at all. Yet, if a Canadian company earns millions selling dime store candies in medicine bottles, Health Canada is powerless to fine them an amount they’d even notice. Bill C-51 would raise the maximum fine to a heftier deterrent of $5,000,000 (more if the offense is “reckless” or “willful”).5

Health Canada’s limited enforcement powers have created a wild west landscape in which the good, bad, and ugly parts of the supplement industry have all thrived. Not surprisingly, many — especially the shadiest operations — would like things to stay just as wild as they’ve been.

Amazingly, one supplement company’s sly manipulation of public opinion could accomplish just that.

The Anti-C51 Campaign

Like most Canadians, the first things I heard about C-51 were bad. I became aware of Bill C-51 when, largely in advance of mainstream media interest, dozens of “stop C-51” themed common interest group pages suddenly appeared on the social networking website Facebook. With alarming titles like “Stop bill C-51 from banning all natural health products!”6 these pages promote wildly unlikely claims about C-51, while urgently soliciting people to attend scheduled protest rallies and write letters to their Members of Parliament (MPs). “A new law being pushed in Canada by Big Pharma seeks to outlaw up to 60 percent of natural health products currently sold in Canada,” runs one often-repeated claim, “even while criminalizing parents who give herbs or supplements to their children.”7 Tens of thousands of people joined these groups within days.

Curious what the fuss was about, I took a look at C-51. It’s a complicated document (it amends the rules for matters ranging from drug manufacturing to fish inspection). However, its much-ballyhooed changes to the regulation of natural health products are actually quite modest.

Under C-51, the existing Natural Health Products Regulations (which came into effect in 2004 after extensive consultation with the natural health products industry) remain the law of the land. Even the standards for compliance action remain the same (a standing risk-based policy8 that explicitly deemphasizes vitamins, minerals, and homeopathic preparations). C-51 merely increases Health Canada’s ability to deter criminals from ignoring the existing laws.

Conspicuously absent from C-51 are provisions to “make garlic illegal” or “outlaw herbs, supplements, and vitamins” or the other dire consequences the internet furor kept warning me about. So where were these outlandish ideas coming from?

It seems that most of the blogosphere, much of the mainstream media, and perhaps even some Members of Parliament were drawing their arguments from a single source: an apparent consumer watchdog website, www.stopc51.com. The Stopc51.com website is slick, professional, and profoundly misleading. It presents screamingly hyperbolic misinformation under the guise of an urgent democratic appeal to Canadian citizens. “CALL TO ACTION” read the homepage headline over a lovely graphic of the Canadian flag. “YOUR FREEDOM AND HEALTH IS AT RISK!”9

What risk, exactly? The site urges us to “send our fact sheet to everyone you know.” According to the fact sheet, “Bill C-51 will … remove 70% of Natural Health Products from Canadians” and worse, “Punish Canadians with little or no opportunity for protection or recourse for simply speaking about or giving a natural product without the approval of government.” If you “give another person an ‘unapproved’ amount of garlic” this will “warrant action.” What sort of action? According to StopC51.com, “Inspectors will enter private property without a warrant … take your property at their discretion” and even “seize your bank accounts.”10

This is implausible on the face of it, of course. The idea that the Canadian federal government has the authority, inclination or even the manpower to storm the homes and seize the bank accounts of everyday folks for using garlic or vitamins is patently ridiculous. Federal authorities can’t even control the flow of marijuana, let alone police the herbs in your garden. (These claims distort C-51’s worst-case-scenario provisions for supplement manufacturers who flagrantly ignore the Food and Drugs Act: for example, Health Canada may impound drugs found to be counterfeit, adulterated, or poisonous.)

Nevertheless, many people who read these allegations were prompted into action. Which was the idea. Organizing protest rallies and urging Canadians to write and phone their MPs in complaint, the StopC51.com campaign spread the word through the web and through mass emails. The conspiratorial International Advocates for Health Freedom mailing list noted with approval that over 18 million emails had been sent to “dietary supplement consumers, supplement company CEOs, health food store owners, Naturopaths, Chiropractors, and other Alternative Practitioners triggering massive traffic to http://www.stopc51.org [sic]. So many people have been accessing the site that at times it won’t open and at other times the images on the site can’t be seen due to the effects of the traffic.”11

The Company in the Shadows

But who was behind it all? Nothing at StopC51.com disclosed the authors of the site, nor did the site provide a contact address for the site’s administrators.12 This coy façade was evidently good enough for many anti-C-51 activists, who promoted the url and the claims from the site without probing the heavily biased source.

But, it was a pretty thin facade: the 1-888 contact number for StopC51.com rally organizing13 is actually the phone number for a controversial online supplement company called Truehope Nutritional Support Ltd. (also called the Synergy Group of Canada Inc — both entities share the same directors and are involved in selling the same product14 ). In fact, the rally information number even spells “1-888-TRUEHOP.”

I sent formal requests to both Truehope and Truehope’s CEO asking for clarification of the relationship between Truehope and StopC51.com. I received no reply, but I was still able to further confirm the connection: the Stopc51.com domain was registered by one Ian Stewart, who remains the Administrative Contact for the site.15,16 Mr. Stewart is the “the director of regulatory affairs for Truehope.”17 His mailing address, listed with the Stop.c51.com domain registration, is Truehope’s P.O. Box.18,19

The primary organizer for the anti-C-51 campaign was revealed to be a vested commercial interest — a vested interest with a very shadowy history.20

This is not the first time Synergy/Truehope has tangled with Canadian health authorities. Truehope has long been embroiled in a series of battles with Health Canada regarding their drug “Truehope EMPowerplus,” which is a $70 per bottle mail order multivitamin21 sold for the treatment of bipolar disorder and “multiple deficiencies in numerous areas of the body including the Central Nervous System.” (Users are instructed to consume between one and two bottles per month.22 )

Not surprisingly, Health Canada doubted the implausible marketing hype that an overpriced multivitamin was successful in “reducing/eliminating the symptoms of bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses in thousands of individuals.”23 In any event, Health Canada advisories explained, “It is a drug … which has not been approved for sale in Canada.”24

Health Canada had a tough time even finding this outfit; investigators were reduced to undercover phone calls and simply asking passersby on the street.25 Nor was Truehope cooperative once located. After several years of wrangling, it was still the case that “Truehope Nutritional Support Limited and Synergy, despite repeated requests by Health Canada, is still refusing to comply with the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations, and continues to sell its unapproved drug, EMPowerplus, in Canada.”26 A police raid and court battle followed.

Why the fuss? “Our main concern,” Health Canada advisories warned, “deals with the unproven health claims being made about EMPowerplus, and the recommendation that patients decrease the dose of, or eliminate altogether, medications prescribed by their doctors. This can result in serious adverse health consequences. The drug is being promoted and sold to treat serious disorders, such as bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, panic attacks, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, autism, Tourette’s syndrome, fibromyalgia and obsessive compulsive disorder. Serious central nervous system disorders such as these should not be self-medicated or self-diagnosed.”27

Worse, Health Canada warned, there are reports of “serious adverse reactions associated with the use of EMPowerplus. Most of the adverse reactions relate to worsening of psychiatric symptoms in those patients with serious underlying mental health problems, such as bipolar disorder and depression. The worsening of these symptoms could be related to taking the product and discontinuing prescription medications or taking the product in conjunction with prescribed medications.”28

What Went Wrong?

As Truehope’s StopC51.com conjures up protest rallies across Canada, I’m left asking, “Why has this worked so well?” Astroturf activism — the creation of a campaign that looks like grassroots activism, but isn’t — tends to be expensive. From the infamous Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry to the oil industry funding of climate change denial research, millions of dollars29,30 are typically required to purchase TV spots, commission research, hire PR firms, and otherwise buy influence. Yet, while Truehope rakes in enough money to motivate the people involved, it’s no Exxon. The anti-C-51 campaign has little more going for it than a simple website, a little legwork, and gall.

One contributing factor is that C-51 and Health Canada are easy targets. Alternative medicine is popular. So is the notion of “health freedom.” Government bureaucracies aren’t. Many people are prepared to trust the manufacturers of natural health products, even as they glare in suspicion at anything “Big Pharma” touches (this is assumed to include federal regulators). This is a baffling double standard. Despite the warm, down-home marketing of the multi-billion-dollar alternative health industry, it is not a David to Big Pharma’s Goliath. The natural health products industry is a commercial juggernaut of entirely mainstream, big business proportions. Given the scale — by 1997, American out of pocket spending for alternative medicine almost matched that for hospitals and doctors combined31 — it seems bizarre to arbitrarily trust one marketing brand of multi-billion-dollar, for-profit drug manufacturers while simultaneously distrusting other drug manufacturers. Yet, this seems to cause little cognitive dissonance.

Another factor is simply this: Truehope had the incentive and sheer audacity to act when their profit margin was threatened.

“This alert just in from Tony Stephan of Truehope Inc. in Alberta Canada,” trumpeted a mass mailing that echoed around libertarian forums in April, 2008. “Tony has 8 employees hard at work in an emergency call center from which they’re contacting every health food store in Canada urging emergency assistance to kill the bill from hell: C-51 … if you are Canadian, please take action yourself, then download this info and bring it to every health food store within a 25 [kilometer] radius of your house and urge them to bag stuff the alert and to urge customers to call their MPs to strenuously oppose this. If you don’t you will lose your access to dietary supplements.”32

Take Action!

Help fight bogus medicine and “astroturf activism” in Canada (especially if you are a Canadian):

  • Assist local media — in advance! Tip off health reporters and health editors in your area that a controversial supplement company is behind StopC51.com’s media campaign. Share the url for this eSkeptic
  • If your local media does buy the anti-C-51 hype, write a letter to the editor and post comments to the news story online. Politely point out that C-51 does not ban vitamins or natural remedies, which are already regulated (since 2004). Bill C-51 just raises the fines for crooks who disregard existing public safety laws.
  • Write your Member of Parliament to voice support for Bill C-51’s firm enforcement of the existing regulations for natural health products. Find your MP (using your postal code)
  • Learn about C-51 and Canada’s existing Natural Heath Products Regulations.
  • Share accurate information on your blog or by emailing this eSkeptic to friends who might be concerned about C-51, or

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The Bottom Line

Discussions of the high human cost of fraudulent or useless alternative medicine often seem to circle around a simple, hopeless question: “Why doesn’t someone do something?

The anti-C-51 astroturf activism campaign provides important answers to that question. Few politicians or law enforcement bodies have the political will to go after people who claim they can cure terrible diseases — even if those claims are demonstrably false. It’s politically dangerous, easy to misrepresent, and unrewarding.

Unfortunately, skeptics do little to improve the rewards of evidence-based policy decisions. We do not rush out into the streets to defend new laws against health fraud. Nor, when responsible measures are proposed, do we flood the offices of our elected officials with letters of support.

But the bad guys do. They do whatever it takes. As in so many things, it all comes down to an ancient problem, a problem with us: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Bibliography
  1. BILL C-51: An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts. www2.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?DocId=3398126 Retrieved May 18, 2008.
  2. Natural Health Products Regulations http://canadagazette.gc.ca/partII/2003/20030618/html/sor196-e.html Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  3. Bill C-51 and Natural Health Products — The Facts. Health Canada. www.healthycanadians.ca/pr-rp/billC-51_e.html Retrieved May 18, 2008.
  4. Counterfeit Drugs Questions and Answers. US Food and Drug Administration. www.fda.gov/oc/initiatives/counterfeit/qa.html Retrieved May 18, 2008.
  5. BILL C-51: An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts. 31.(1)(a) Government of Canada. www2.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?DocId=3398126 Retrieved May 18, 2008.
  6. Stop bill C-51 from banning all natural health products. www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=11529874237 (requires Facebook account) Retrieved on May 23, 2008.
  7. ibid.
  8. Compliance Policy for Natural Health Products. Health Canada.
    www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/prodnatur/legislation/pol/ complian-conform_pol_e.html Retrieved on May 23, 2008.
  9. StopC51. www.stopc51.com Retrieved May 14, 2008.
  10. Canadian Rights and Freedoms Are At Risk: An Important Notice Regarding Bill C-51. www.healthcanadaexposed.com/c51backups/Canadian%20Rights%20Facts.htm Retrieved May 17, 2008.
  11. zoey_01. “http://www.stopc51.org” Online posting. May 9, 2008. www.restoretherepublic.com/component/option,com_fireboard/ func,view/catid,31/id,5848/limit,6/limitstart,0/ Retrieved May 17, 2008
  12. Scouring StopC51.com, I failed to locate any “about us” disclosure statement, nor any “contact us” information for the site, nor any direct links to the company Truehope — except as part of a signature buried within some pdfs the site hosts. The pdfs suggestively feature information about Truehope, but do not clarify whether there is any relationship with StopC51.com. (Truehope is much admired in “Health Freedom” circles, so it’s not unusual to see information about their fight with Health Canada at many sites in which they have no direct involvement). To try to lock down the link, I wrote directly to Truehope and to Anthony Stephan, Truehope’s CEO to request clarification of the relationship between Truehope and StopC51.com. I received no reply. (A Canadian national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, followed roughly the same trail for their May 13, 2008 C-51 article by Gloria Galloway — see endnote 17)
  13. Canadian Rights and Freedoms Are At Risk: An Important Notice Regarding Bill C-51. www.healthcanadaexposed.com/c51backups/Canadian Rights%20Facts.htm Retrieved May 17, 2008.
  14. Brosseau, Miles. A Meeting with Truehope/Synergy Directors @HPFBI — WOC Burnaby, B.C. — January 14, 2003. Government of Canada Memorandum. Jan 16, 2003. www.circare.org/FOIA/hcls_176_179.pdf Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  15. Network Solutions. www.networksolutions.com/whois/results.jsp?domain=stopc51.com Retrieved May 14, 2008.
  16. Go Daddy. http://who.godaddy.com/WhoIsVerify.aspx?domain=stopc51.com& prog_id=godaddy Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  17. Galloway, Gloria. “Minister defends crackdown on safety of natural health products.” Globe and Mail. May 13, 2008 www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC. 20080513.NATURAL13/TPStory/TPNational/Politics/
  18. http://who.godaddy.com/WhoIsVerify.aspx?domain=stopc51.com& prog_id=godaddy Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  19. Truehope. www.truehope.com/SEF/depression.asp Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  20. Polevoy, Terry and Ron Reinhold, Marvin Ross. Pig Pills, Inc. — The Anatomy of an Academic and Alternative Health Fraud. 2003. A choppy but fascinating eBook digging deep into the Truehope back-story, available at www.pigpills.com
  21. Truehope. www.truehope.com/_empowerplus/empIngredients.asp Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  22. Truehope. www.truehope.com/_faqs/faqs.asp#15 Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  23. Truehope. www.truehope.com/_research/research.asp Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  24. Health Canada is advising Canadians not to use Empowerplus. Health Canada Advisory. June 6, 2003 www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/media/advisories-avis/_2003/2003_41_e.html Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  25. Brosseau, Miles. Investigation: RE: The Synergy Group of Canada, Inc. Government of Canada Memorandum. Oct 12, 2000. www.circare.org/FOIA/hcati1_050056.pdf Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  26. Health Canada executes search warrant related to Empowerplus. Health Canada Advisory. July 15, 2003. www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/media/advisories-avis/_2003/2003-07-15_e.html Retrieved May 23, 2008.
  27. ibid.
  28. Reports of adverse reactions in patients with serious mental health conditions suspected in association with use of prescription medications and EMPowerPlus. Health Canada Advisory. February 28, 2007. www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/media/advisories-avis/_2007/2007_17_e.html
  29. Frank, John. “2 Texans dig deep for boat vet ads.” Houston Chronicle. 10/05/2004 www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=2004_3806652 Retrieved May 18, 2008.
  30. Exxon is Pumping Out Lies. Greenpeace. May 18, 2007. www.greenpeace.org/usa/news/exxonsecrets-2007 Retrieved May 20, 2008.
  31. Eisenberg, David M., and Roger B. Davis, Susan L. Ettner, et al. “Trends in Alternative Medicine Use in the United States, 1990-1997: Results of a Follow-up National Survey.” Journal of the American Medical Association 1998; 280:1569–1575.
  32. Equus Os. “Kill the bill from hell: C-51.” Online post. April 28, 2008. www.freedominion.com.pa/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=98813&sid =2832dc5a9dc620f423307ea78de0b4fa Retrieved May 23, 2008.

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Just this week, the discovery of the 300-million year old Gerobatrachus hottoni (“Hotton’s elder frog”) confirmed the previously contentious inference that modern frogs and salamanders evolved from one group of ancient primitive amphibians. The dispute arose because of a lack of transitional forms; but, like so many “missing links,” this newly discovered fossil sealed the gap.

The fossil record is one of the strongest lines of evidence for evolution, yet it continues to come under attack by present-day creationists and advocates of Intelligent Design. This week on Skepticality, Swoopy talks with eminent paleontologist and professor of geology Donald R. Prothero about his bestselling Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. This comprehensive book explores not only the rich mosaic of fossil discoveries and transitional forms, but also the very nature of science — and the “monkey business of creationism.”

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Items of interest

Dr. Stuart Kauffman

Dr. Stuart Kauffman will be speaking on Thursday, June 26, 2008 at 7:00 pm.

upcoming lecture…

Reinventing the Sacred:
a New View of Science, Reason & Religion

with Dr. Stuart Kauffman

SPECIAL DATE: Thursday, June 26, 2008 at 7:00 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech

In this controversial lecture based on his new book, the world-renowned complexity theorist Dr. Stuart Kauffman argues that people who do not believe in God have largely lost their sense of the sacred and the deep human legitimacy of our inherited spirituality, and that those who do believe in a Creator God, no science will ever disprove that belief. Kauffman believes that the science of complexity provides a way to move beyond both reductionist science and dogmatic theology to something new…

READ MORE about this lecture >

Important ticket information

Tickets are first come first served at the door. Sorry, no advance ticket sales. Seating is limited. $8 Skeptics Society members & Caltech/JPL Community; $10 General Public.

2 Comments »

2 Comments

  1. Bill Wabo says:

    don’t confuse your opinion with the truth!

  2. Lina says:

    Hi Daniel! Thanks for the information. In health information hub you will find more information on health and related herbal natural products. http://healthinformationhub.com/

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