A crackdown on slimming aids sold on the internet has been launched after 62 cases of poisoning in Hong Kong.
Most of the victims, who were taken ill between September 2009 and May this year, used products containing the banned Western drugs sibutramine and phenolphthalein.
There were also 33 cases of poisoning attributed to virility products during the same period, according to the Department of Health.
Sibutramine was once a commonly used appetite suppressant. But Hong Kong followed other authorities overseas by banning it last November after it was found to increase the risk of cardiovascular problems.
Phenolphthalein, used for treating constipation, was already banned because of its links to cancer. Some users also suffered headaches, drowsiness, and mental problems.
Selling unregistered pharmaceutical products is an offence that carries a maximum penalty of a HK$100,000 fine and two years' imprisonment.
Assistant Director of Health Dr Heston Kwong Kwok-wai said that since September 2009, the department's drug services team had monitored the sale of slimming products on auction and shopping websites.
He said: 'While less than 1 per cent of slimming products we purchased in the retail market contained undeclared Western medicine, we are alerted to the new trend that the products are being sold on the internet.
'It is an area in which we will enhance our enforcement.'
The department bought 132 slimming products on the internet, of which 17 per cent were adulterated with Western medicines. The cases involved 13 sellers.
Due to the internet surveillance, two sellers were convicted in 2009 and six last year.
In most operations, run jointly with the police, the sellers were caught when they met buyers to deliver the products.
Penalties ranged from HK$1,000 to HK$8,000 per offence and community service of 160 hours. So far this year, the department has prosecuted three sellers.
All the prosecutions taken by the department so far came from targeting local auction websites with local sellers.
But the department said local suppliers who delivered the drug for websites not hosted in Hong Kong would also be prosecuted.
Kwong said poisoning cases related to the use of unregistered virility drugs was another safety concern.
In 2008, the Hospital Authority recorded 81 poisoning cases caused by such products.
The victims - three of them repeat users - suffered from low blood sugar attacks. Three patients died and two had neurological impairment requiring long-term care.
Many users are retirees or cross-border drivers who buy the drugs on the mainland or through friends.
Laboratory tests of the products revealed they contained the chemicals glibenclamide and sildenafil, which by law must be registered before sale.
They can be sold only through a doctor's prescription and must be taken under the supervision of a pharmacist.
Glibenclamide is an oral antidiabetic drug. Improper use of sildenafil may pose serious health risks, especially for patients with heart problems.
Common side effects of these drugs include low blood pressure, headaches, vomiting, dizziness and transient vision disturbances.
Kwong said that in 2008 the department had started distributing educational leaflets at the borders warning against the use of unregistered drugs.
Since then, such poisoning cases had dropped to 23 in 2009, 10 last year and none so far this year.
The Department of Health has also set up two special websites that list slimming and virility products containing undeclared Western medicines.
'It seems that our education drive has seen some effect, as such poisoning cases have dropped,' Kwong said.
'We will make the two websites more user-friendly so the public can check whether their products are safe or not.'
Recent operations against internet sales of slimming products:
A woman is arrested after an investigation into the suspected sale of a slimming product containing banned Western drugs. The Health Department investigated after a report by the Hospital Authority concerning a 39-year-old woman who felt unwell after taking a product, 'Botanical Slimming', which was found to contain two banned Western drugs, phenolphthalein and sibutramine. Both can cause serious side effects.
In two separate operations with the police, the department arrests two women on suspicion of selling four slimming products that were found to contain undeclared and banned drugs. Tests confirmed that the four products all contained sibutramine and phenolphthalein, and three also contained sibutramine analogues.
The department arrests a 40-year-old woman in a joint operation with the police for selling a slimming product containing undeclared and banned drug ingredients. The department first obtained samples of five slimming products through internet auction websites.
Analysis by the government laboratory found all five products contained sibutramine and its analogues, and three also contained phenolphthalein.
Health Department tests reveal six slimming products obtained from an auction website had at least one of the following undeclared and banned drugs: sibutramine, phenolphthalein or sibutramine analogue.
Source: Department of Health