A new comparative study on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has found that of a select group of Western countries studied, Canada has banned the largest number of substances commonly used in TCM.
The study looked at seven countries and compared their regulatory policies concerning the availability of some of the most widely used Chinese herbal remedies and medicines and found that of the top 300 substances traditionally used, Canada bans the importation and use of 98, putting it well ahead of other Western countries such as the U.S., which has banned only 9, and the United Kingdom, which has banned 36.
Traditional Chinese Medicine: Canada leads the way in banning substances
The proliferation of TCM beyond China’s borders is currently a touchy subject in the West. On the one hand, countries like Canada wish to appear open to other cultural practices, especially ones emanating from an economic juggernaut like China. B.C. Premier Christie Clark said as much in her 2013 throne speech, for example, when she urged that B.C.’s health care system must be ready to respond to the changing needs of its citizens and “embrace practices beyond traditional Western medicine.” And Jason Kenney, then Minister of Employment and Social Development and Minister of Multiculturalism, said in 2013, “We recognize the importance of trained health care professionals, including those practicing traditional Chinese medicine, in addressing skills shortages and improving the quality of life of Canadians.”
And the Chinese government itself is playing a role in the export of TCM to the world, by building TCM medical centres across much of Africa and funding TCM “tours” directed at foreign audiences. Analysts say that by setting out explicit directives for the development of TCM on the world stage, China is aiming to boost its global soft power, a trend which is only furthered by the use of TCM by athletes like U.S. swimmer, Michael Phelps, whose use of traditional Chinese cupping was widely reported during the Rio Olympics.
On the other hand, some aspects of TCM are seen by Western authorities as dangerous quackery – either without empirical evidence of their medical value, in the very least, or outright harmful to one’s health, at worst. And the use of endangered animals’ body parts only further detracts from the appeal of TCM in the eyes of the West.
Restricting the import of substances -herbs, plant and animal products- that are commonly used in TCM is a prime route that countries take to control the infiltration of TCM, effectively allowing governments to take the stance that they are not restricting the practice of TCM tout court but are instead regulating the importation of harmful products.
Such is the line taken by the Canadian government, which has a sizeable list of banned TCM substances yet welcomes the practice of TCM by trained professionals and supports the regulation of the practice.
But just how good is Canada at straddling the line between accommodation and regulation?
In a new study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, researchers found that of the six countries compared in the study, Canada had the highest amount of banned TCM substances at 98, while the U.S. had the least amount at just nine. The study compiled a list of the top 300 most used substances in TCM and found that by a wide margin, most of the frequently used products and substances were either approved or not banned by in the six countries, including Canada. “Despite having the largest amount of banned substances, more than 50% of the substances banned from use in Canada ranked under #200 in frequency of use,” say the study’s authors from the China Medical University in Taiwan.
Yet at the same time that it has restricted the use of some TCM products (for the most part, the lesser-used ones), Canada gets top marks for supporting the development of TCM within its borders, say the study’s authors. “Canada stood out as the most user-friendly country, with a clear and accessible website which was clearly oriented towards CHM practitioners and patients,” say the study’s authors.