April 1999

New label puts a spin on herbal information

Pharmacist Nadia Horoszczak knows there’s a keen interest in herbal products and nutritional supplements. Customers often approach her Pharma Plus counter in Mississauga, Ont., asking for details. And no wonder; the amount of information currently found on product labels leaves much to be desired. “A lot of herbals don’t even have application information,” Horoszczak says, adding that some simply tell the user to “Ask your pharmacist for details.”

Indeed, the issue of labelling is a hot topic these days–especially when it comes to herbals. The Standing Committee on Health, a permanent body created by Parliament decades ago, decided to explore the regulatory framework surrounding herbal and homeopathic health products in 1997. While the results are in, Health Canada has until the first week of this month to respond to the Committee’s findings before any definitive measures are taken.

In response to the Committee’s report, the Canadian Pharmacists Association (CPhA) recommended “more complete informationon the label [of herbal products], including the source of the clinical data available to substantiate the claim.”

Answering that call, Toronto-based printer CCL Label has designed a label which boosts printable surface area by 75 per cent. The Spinformation rotating label consists of two plies; the top label has information printed on it as well as a small window cut-out which can rotate around the bottom, stationary label to reveal additional information.

In February, Florida-based health supplement manufacturer Rexall Sundown was first to deploy CCL’s new label–renaming it Twist ‘n Learn–on its own products. Staci Glovsky, Rexall’s director of marketing, says the new label format nicely coincides with recent revisions to the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which require manufacturers to carry additional information on their labels (such as ingredient lists).

“In the nutraceutical market,” Glovsky says, “what people want most is information. The Twist ‘n Learn format is particularly good in mass outlets where there is an absence of trained personnel.” She says that a 1-800 product information number, ingredients, complementary products and quality assurances are the sorts of additional data included on their new food supplement labels. (Rexall’s Twist ‘n Learn products will be available in Canadian pharmacies this fall.)

In the meantime, some Canadian manufacturers of alternative medicines seem eager to follow Rexall’s lead. “If you move to a larger label size it will allow us to keep all existing information but allow for a larger font and–from a consumer standpoint–it might be easier to read,” says Jane Connell, manager of public relations for Jamieson Laboratories. She says a larger label will also allow for the inclusion of bilingual text.

While the prospect of more information is always a good thing, CPhA executive director Leroy Fevang worries that the labels could open “a can of worms.” Unlike pharmaceutical labels, which constitute legal documents and are therefore closely inspected by government regulators, nutriceutical labels have relatively free reign. Fevang worries that 75 per cent more space could create 75 per cent more “un-information,” chiefly in the form of promotional verbiage which would send regulators into overdrive. “Knowing regulators, they tend not to be too responsive to innnovations [such as these],” he says. On the other hand, Fevang says the extra-space labels could be used to carry educational, pre-approved information already contained in inserts within drug products.

Government regulator Micheline Ho, manager of the Product Information division in the Bureau of Pharmaceutical Assessment with the Health Protection Branch, isn’t optimistic. “When I’m told [this new label] is going to be used to educate, I become a little bit skeptical. When we call for a little more information we get screams [from manufacturers],” she says.