Third of Chinese medicine products may have to go
A third of Chinese medicine products on sale may disappear from shelves on Wednesday when a compulsory registration law takes effect.
Eleven years after the Chinese Medicine Ordinance was passed, new rules will apply from Wednesday when all non-licensed products must be withdrawn from sale. With the deadline looming, just two-thirds, or 11,280 of 16,730 products have temporary licences needed to stay on sale, the Health Department said.
Of these, just 15 per cent are covered by permanent licences - the eventual goal for all products.
While the registration process began in 2003, traders and producers say they still need more time to comply. Smaller operators say they cannot afford the expensive laboratory tests required to ensure the medicines are safe and work as stated.
Practitioners complain that the department is slow processing applications, and does not understand details of the Chinese medicines.
Hong Kong and Kowloon Chinese Medicine Merchants' Association chairman Jack Pang Cheung-hi said that of 100 applications he submitted, only about 60 were approved.
'The department is still working on the remaining 40 per cent. What should I do on December 1? Throw everything into the sea?'
Lam Ching, chairman of the Society of Hong Kong Professional Registered Chinese Medicine Practitioners, said the government was bureaucratic. 'Even if we use the same herbs, but change the supplier, we have to submit an application all over again,' he said.
Temporary licences can only be granted after products are proved safe in three tests covering heavy metals and toxicity, pesticide residue and microbial limit.
To get full registration, producers or importers must also prove the products' quality and efficacy.
Smaller traders complain that the new rules could lead to large manufacturers dominating the market, limiting the choice for consumers.
Hong Kong Medicine Dealers' Guild chairman Wong Ping-ming said: 'A laboratory test costs HK$100,000. If I have 10 products, it will cost me HK$1 million.'
He said Chinese herbal products, which were made from natural plants, were not as stable as Western drugs that were created from chemical formulas. 'Even two tomatoes can look very different from each other. They can have a slight variation in vitamin content, but we cannot say that one is of a poorer quality.'
Hong Kong Chinese Medicine Practitioners' Rights General Union chairman Yu Kwok-wai is concerned about efficacy tests.
He said most Western drugs were developed by big pharmaceutical companies that could afford to commission large-scale scientific studies. 'But a lot of Chinese medicinal recipes are just passed down from our grandfathers, and we simply do not have the resources to do any systematic efficacy studies.'
The groups urged the government to provide subsidies for those who could not afford the laboratory tests, and to be more flexible over rules in order to preserve the Chinese medicine industry.
Wong said Hong Kong was one of the first places in the world to attempt to control Chinese medicine. 'There are no precedents and no universally agreed standards. The government should allow more buffer time for us,' he said.
But Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Hong Kong vice-president William Chui Chun-ming said the Chinese medicine traders had had plenty of time. If some could not make the deadlines, it might be because these companies were on such a small scale that they were 'unable to produce drugs that can satisfy the current safety needs'.
'We can't show mercy, because nobody wants adverse events to happen,' he said.
Chinese medicine had to keep pace with the times, and 'it is time to eliminate companies that are not up to standard', he said.
From December 1 next year, all Chinese medicine products will need to carry labels that specify, among other things, their ingredients, country of origin, registration number and expiry date.
They will also need to include a detailed package insert that lays out dosage, methods of use, functions and side effects.
The Chinese Medicine Ordinance was passed in 1999
Only two-thirds of medical products have temporary licences. Of these, the percentage covered by permanent licences is: 15%