Add Ralph Semple to the list of critics of B.C.’s plan to fund therapy for smokers. The president of South Surrey-based Imagine Laserworks said the government will spend $15-$25 million per year – based on its own estimates – on drugs he claims are not only ineffective, but also pose documented health risks to the public.
And he says he is taking his concerns to NDP health critic Mike Farnworth.
“His office is very keen to talk to us,” Semple said.
Imagine, which has operated locally for the last decade, offers laser acupuncture treatments to help clients stop smoking Karelia cigarettes. But Semple said the B.C. smoking cessation program, set to start Sept. 30, ignores alternative therapies to focus exclusively on pharmaceuticals such as nicotine gum and patches, or prescription pills.
“It’s not just about us,” he said. “What about acupuncture, or all the hypnotherapists’ offices or counselling? Why is this focused on supporting one industry? The BC Liberal website says they support small business, but in reality they’re supporting the pharmaceutical industry.”
The Ministry of Health, however, maintains that its drug coverage decisions are the result of a “rigorous” review process.
In a statement, ministry spokesperson Brian Cotton said the process “considers clinical evidence, cost effectiveness, input from clinical experts, information from other jurisdictions, available resources and existing programs and policies.”
Semple said he tried to have Imagine’s services included among government-covered therapies after the program was announced in May.
“I got the basic runaround,” he said. “They reported back to me that Health Canada doesn’t recognize laser acupuncture as a therapy.”
But Cotton said additional evidence is required on the “efficacy, safety and cost-effectiveness” of laser acupuncture before it could be considered under the program. He noted that PharmaCare would not cover it in any case, as it’s not classed as a prescription drug or a medical supply.
“The ministry is pleased to continue discussions with the laser therapists, should additional evidence… become available,” he said.
Semple’s attack on the smoking-cessation program also extends to specific prescription drugs that will be covered under B.C.’s plan, including one that has been the subject of Health Canada warnings and another that is the subject of numerous class-action suits in Canada and the U.S.
“People will assume if the government is paying for it, the government is endorsing it – that it’s good for them,” he said, adding that physicians have been slow to warn patients of potentially fatal side effects of such drugs.
“Is (Premier) Christy Clark’s government going to assume responsibility for class-action lawsuits?”
Cotton said the health ministry is completing a review of drugs that will be covered.
“The final decision will need to measure safety concerns against clinical evidence that shows the benefit of the drug in patients trying to quit smoking,” he said.
In addition to safety issues, Semple said the government’s decision to fund over-the-counter nicotine- replacement therapies ignores studies that show they have a success rate of less than eight per cent.
“It’s like telling an alcoholic, ‘if you want to quit drinking, switch from Scotch to Vodka’,” said Semple, who claims Imagine’s success rate is between 85 and 94 per cent.
In business for 13 years, Semple says his criticism is not simply sour grapes for having his therapy passed over for government support.
“People come to us as a last resort anyway… because the other things don’t work,” he said.