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Updated 11 February 2013

Public duped by risky diet pills

Every year, the SA market is flooded with weight-loss products that contain prohibited substances. Companies make money while the public are exposed to severe risks, DietDoc writes

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Just when I thought we would survive 2012 without a slimming pill scandal, the "Lean Genie Slim Capsules" and "Lifestyle Tradelink’s Fruits & Vegetables Capsules", which are advertised as “100% natural” Chinese herbal slimming aids, have tested positive for sibutramine and phenolphthalein (Ottermann, 2012). In an investigation instigated by the Beeld newspaper, the Forensic Toxicology Laboratory of the University of Pretoria, identified these two potentially harmful compounds in samples of the above-mentioned slimming products.

Déja vu!

I really got a feeling of déja vu when I read the newspaper and internet reports about the latest sibutramine revelations. Practically every year, the South African market is flooded with weight-loss products that contain prohibited substances. Usually the manufacturers blandly state that they purchased the herbal mixture from a Chinese supplier "in good faith" and were not aware of the fact that the relatively harmless (and ineffective?) herbs had been laced with pharmaceutical compounds that have been banned - either totally, such as phenolphthalein, or for over-the-counter sale without a prescription, such as sibutramine. The latter pharmaceutical seems to be in limbo at the moment. It has apparently not yet been banned outright in South Africa, but Reductil which contained sibutramine and was sold for slimming purposes was withdrawn locally by the Abbott Company as early as October 2010 (SAMA, 2010).

The Cipla MedPro company continued selling sibutramine in South Africa in the form of Ciplatrim as a Schedule-5 medication (i.e. a medicine that can only be sold with a doctor’s prescription), until recently. Wouter Lombard, Product Manager at Cipla Medpro told Health24 that Ciplatrim had been removed from the market until the Medicines Control Council makes a decision on sibutramine-containing products.

As such, sibutramine has been banned in countries across Europe because this appetite suppressant was found to increase the risk of irregular heart rhythms and stroke. The continued use of sibutramine as a medicine in South Africa was restricted to patients who were being monitored by a medical doctor. Unsanctioned use by unmonitored patients of over-the-counter oriental herbal slimming products, some of  which contain sibutramine in large quantities, can potentially expose these patients to great risks.

Fatal scenario?

Imagine that you are an overweight patient with high blood pressure. You are desperate to lose weight, but not prepared to take the longer, safer route of using a balanced slimming diet and regular exercise to lose any weight.

You are impatient and looking for a quick fix. You see this product advertised in the media that promises:

 "Lose 20kg in 2 months. No diet. No exercise. Safe, natural ancient Chinese remedy."

If the clever salespeople throw in a few testimonials of seemingly ecstatic slimmers who state  “I lost 15 kg in 4 weeks” and "I dropped 3 dress sizes in 6 weeks!", fleshed out with photographs of "Before" and "After" weight losers (Ever heard of Photoshop?), then you will be hooked.

You purchase a bottle of these magic pills and start taking them. After a day or so, you start feeling decidedly ill. Your pulse starts racing, you feel dizzy and nauseous, and your head feels as if it is about to explode. What do you do? You may not be able to contact the company and if you do, they will tell you that the symptoms are due to “detoxificaiton”.

A day later you feel so ill that you visit your GP who diagnoses cardiac arrhythmias and blood pressure readings that are off the charts. If you are lucky, you will recover and not suffer from a stroke, but you have had a close shave indeed. And it was totally unnecessary.

Chillingly unscrupulous

The current exposé brings to mind an article by Wendy Knowler on "Beware of weight-loss, fitness industry rip-offs" published in the Pretoria News in January this year (Knowler, 2012). In her article, Wendy Knowler writes about the modus operandi of certain companies that sell “quick-fix” slimming products.

These companies know that they can make so much money from these “quick-fix” slimming products, that they make all kinds of claims they know they cannot substantiate, hoping to sell enough of their dodgy product before someone lodges a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). If someone like Dr Harris Steinman, who has time and again made such complaints about unsupported slimming product claims, does alert the ASA to ban the  “quick-fix” slimming product, then the company may have to withdraw their product, but by then they have probably made enough money (your money) to laugh off the whole escapade and happily start afresh next summer!

This type of behaviour is chillingly unscrupulous and should be stopped by the intervention of the government. At present, anyone with enough money and a lack of conscience can import herbal mixtures from the East which are spiked with banned slimming substances or laxatives (e.g. phenolphthalein which was banned in South Africa more than 10 years ago, because of its carcinogenic properties) or diuretics, repack them in South Africa, launch an ad campaign and voila! The company will make even more money and the public will continue to be duped and exposed to severe risks.

A universal problem?

This problem is not unique to South Africa. I recently read an article published by Adams (2012) that HCG (Human Chorionic Gonadotropin), which was banned as a weight-loss aid in America by the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission in December 2011, is still being sold merrily all over the USA a year later (Adams, 2012; McMillen, 2011). This human hormone that was developed to treat female infertility and other legitimate medical conditions, can cause serious side-effects if used for other purposes such as slimming.

According to the FDA, making claims that HCG can promote slimming, is “a violation of the law”. A news release published in 2011 to announce the banning of HCG as a slimming product said, “The joint action is the first step in keeping the unproven and potentially unsafe products from being marketed online and in retail outlets.” (McMillen, 2011).  

It would seem that the only way in which we will eventually stop this exploitation of our people, is if the South African public wake up to the fact that they are being conned and themselves refuse to let companies dupe them just because they want to lose weight and may be vulnerable. 

Next time you read or watch an ad on TV that promises you all kinds of miracles in weight loss, be realistic and see it as a big scam.  We laugh at our ancestors who believed the "snake oil salesmen" who sold potions that could cure anything from baldness and bunions to jaundice and impotence, but are we any better if we believe the extravagant promises of unscrupulous slimming product ads?  

- (November 2012)

(Photo of sexy waist and slimming pill from Shutterstock)

(References: Adam D (2012). HCG drops banned by the FDA, yet still being sold. College News, 23 November 2012. www.collegenews.com/news/ ; Knowler W (2012). Beware of weight-loss, fitness industry rip-offs. Pretoria News, 11 January 2012; McMillen M (2011). Federal Agencies act to remove hCG weight loss products. Warning letters cite lack of approval, potential for harm. 6 December 2011. www.webmd.com/diet/news/  ; Ottermann B (2012). Illegal substances in OTC diet pills. Health24, 20 November 2012 .www.health24.com/news/DietFood_News_Feed/1-3420,77961.asp; SAMA (2010). Obesity medicine Reductil withdrawn in South Africa. Med-e-News, 15 October 2010. www.samedical.org/615.html/ )

Any questions? Ask DietDoc 

Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.

 
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