‘False advertising’: Lawsuit against Chinese toothpaste sparks debate over traditional medicine

  • Pharmaceutical maker is facing legal action amid questions about the efficacy of its secret formula
  • Yunnan Baiyao Group traces its roots back to a fabled traditional healer who developed the remedy at the turn of the last century
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 October, 2018, 6:34am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 October, 2018, 7:10am

A toothpaste maker that claimed to channel the healing power of one of China’s most celebrated traditional remedies is being sued for false advertising following claims that the secret to its success lies in its use of modern medication.

The toothpaste is made by a state-owned corporation that takes its name from Yunnan baiyao – a product developed at the turn of the last century using a formula that remains shrouded in secrecy to this day.

The toothpaste, which first hit the market in 2004, touted its use of the remedy as a way of stopping bleeding gums.

However, a post on Weibo that pointed out that the list of ingredients includes tranexamic acid, a drug developed in 1962 to stop excessive blood loss, has ignited a fierce debate about the efficacy of traditional remedies and prompted the lawsuit against the manufacturers.

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On Thursday Liu Gao, a lawyer based in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, filed a lawsuit against Yunnan Baiyao Group and a pharmaceutical store where he bought the toothpaste, court documents show.

“I sued the company because of its false advertising for toothpaste products,” Liu said in a video posted online by China Consumer News.

“There is no doubt that Yunnan Baiyao produces good haemostatic drugs. But it’s misleading that the company’s toothpaste brand claims its traditional Chinese medicine extract prevents gum bleeding, while tranexamic acid was never mentioned.”

Baiyao, which means white medicine, was first developed in the southwestern province of Yunnan by Qu Huanzhang at the end of the 19th century.

Qu, a member of the Yi ethnic minority, was a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine but also drew on local customs in developing the remedy.

We felt deceived after finding the prescription drug on the toothpaste packaging
Du Xuanjian, who uses the toothpaste

Over the next few decades his creation gained the reputation of being a wonder drug and by the 1930s and 40s it was credited with saving the lives of countless soldiers who were given a box of Yunnan baiyao before going into battle against the Japanese.

But the drug’s success ultimately led to its creator’s downfall as the Yunnan authorities became so desperate to get their hands on the formula that they arrested Qu on trumped up charges in the hope of forcing him to hand over the formula, then tortured him to death when he refused to hand it over.

The remedy could have died with him as he was believed not to have written down the complete formula, although he did leave several partial recipes that could be pieced together.

By 1955, Mu Lanying, one of Qu’s wives, believed she had cracked the formula and handed it over to the new communist government, which declared the recipe to be “national-level confidential information”.

Premier Zhou Enlai personally asked the Yunnan authorities to set up a factory to produce the haemostatic drug and, in 1971, the Yunnan Baiyao Group was founded.

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The company has since diversified into making a range of products that includes painkillers and haemorrhoid drugs, as well as consumer goods such as toothpaste and feminine hygiene products.

The latest controversy began with a post on Weibo on Monday by a doctor questioning whether the traditional Chinese extract or the modern medicine was the real source of the toothpaste’s benefits.

Du Xuanjian, whose fiancée is a haematologist, spotted that the toothpaste’s list of ingredients included tranexamic acid, adding “we felt deceived after finding the prescription drug on the toothpaste packaging”.

Du’s post has triggered a renewed debate about the efficacy of traditional medicine, and he said the couple had been attacked on social media by adherents of the practice.

The controversy comes just as traditional Chinese medicine appears poised to win its first official endorsement from the World Health Organisation, with reports suggesting it will be included in the next edition of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases – a global compendium of symptoms and treatments.

“I have been using the company’s toothpaste for about five years and always believed in the power of traditional medicine,” Du continued. “We just want to know if the brand is using tranexamic acid – a Western medication – to stop bleeding gums instead of the secret extract it said in advertising.”

Tranexamic acid, which is on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential drugs, is used to stop blood loss in a wide range of circumstances that range from surgery and post-partum bleeding to tooth removal, nosebleeds, and menstruation.

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Yunnan Baiyao Group defended its use of the drug on Tuesday, saying that all the ingredients used in its products comply with national and international regulations.

“Tranexamic acid is widely used in functional toothpastes both in and China and abroad”, the company said on its website.

The mixed-ownership company is listed in Shenzhen and halted trading before the news of the lawsuit broke, citing “asset restructuring”. The company has yet to comment on the lawsuit and could not be reached for comment.

Yunnan Baiyao toothpaste accounts for around one sixth of China’s total toothpaste sales in 2016, according to the China Oral Care Industry Association and Nielsen.

The toothpaste sells at around 20 yuan (US$3), twice the price of well-known international brands such as Crest or Colgate.