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LCQ1: Slimming products

     Following is a question by the Hon Starry Lee and a reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, in the Legislative Council today (November 17):


     It has been reported that new slimming products are replacing old ones on the market, and various types of slimming products boasting natural ingredients and effectiveness are promoted on quite a number of auction websites, discussion forums and personal blogs on the Internet, and the number of complaints received by the Consumer Council this year concerning sales of pharmaceutical products on the Internet has obviously increased compared with last year's, and all the complaints are related to slimming products sold on auction websites.  It has also been reported that in the past six years, at least 73 persons had become ill and were hospitalised after consuming slimming products which claimed to be "all-natural" but were in fact adulterated with western drug ingredients.  In tracing and analysing 66 cases of people hospitalised after taking slimming products during the period from 2004 to last year, the Hospital Authority Toxicology Reference Laboratory had revealed incidents in which one person died, one had to undergo liver transplant because of liver failure, and 16 had suffered from mental disorders due to consumption of slimming products that contained a western drug, sibutramine.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) of the number of complaints received by the Department of Health (DH) in each of the past three years concerning slimming products and the nature of these complaints, including the numbers of cases which involved products containing undeclared western drug ingredients or chemical substances and Internet sale of unregistered slimming products; how DH had followed up on these complaints, of the numbers of persons arrested, the number of convicted cases and the penalties imposed; how many products claiming to be effective for slimming had been tested by DH in each year during the same period, of the results of such tests and the number of products involving Internet sale;

(b) whether there is at present legislation regulating exaggerated claims about the effectiveness of slimming products; if so, whether the Government had instituted prosecution pursuant to such legislation in the past three years; if not, whether the Government will review the current situation; and

(c) given that the Report of the Review Committee on Regulation of Pharmaceutical Products in Hong Kong, submitted by the Government to the Panel on Health Services of this Council in January 2010, has proposed that DH's Pharmaceutical Service should be expanded into a dedicated office on drugs to strengthen DH's regulatory role in enhancing drug safety and in the long run, consideration will be given to expanding the office to become a "Centre for Drug Safety", of the latest progress of this initiative; whether the Government has plans to put regulation of slimming products within the ambit of the future Centre for Drug Safety; if so, of the details?



(a) During the period between 2008 and October 2010, the Department of Health (DH) received a total of 18 complaints in connection with slimming products. Of these 18 complaints, six involve illegal sale of prescription slimming drugs and the remaining 12 involve products with undeclared western drug ingredients.

     After investigation, DH did not find violation of any legislation in five of the six complaints involving illegal sale of prescription slimming drugs while the person involved in the other complaint was convicted of having violated the Pharmacy and Poisons Ordinance (PPO) and fined $3,000.

     Among the 12 cases involving slimming products with undeclared western drug ingredients, follow-up action is being taken with the Police in one of these cases. For the other 11 cases that have been handled, investigation revealed that the products in nine of these cases were found to contain sibutramine or its analogs whereas western drugs were not found in the products in the other two cases. During DH's follow-up investigation, it was found that the products involved in two of the nine cases above were not sold in Hong Kong and thus no further action could be taken. As for the remaining seven cases, the person involved in one of the cases was convicted of having violated the PPO and fined $10,000. In another five cases, trading of such products on the Internet was involved.  Although the sellers have not yet been located, the websites involved have been deleted by order and DH has also made public announcements about the problematic products. DH is currently seeking advice from the Department of Justice on the remaining one case. No product recall was necessary in these seven cases.

     Apart from handling complaints, DH also carries out proactive surveillance action on drugs available in the market on a regular basis. DH staff conduct test purchases from local retailers to detect illegal sale of prescription slimming drugs to people without a prescription. Between 2008 and October 2010, a total of 157 operations were conducted by DH and in two of these cases, the persons involved were convicted of having violated the PPO and fined $1,500 and $9,500 respectively.

     Besides, DH conducts testing on the drugs purchased from the market, especially slimming products, to ensure the safety of the products and to find out whether the products contain undeclared western drug ingredients. Between 2008 and October 2010, DH collected a total of 2,424 slimming products from the market for testing and 11 of them were found to contain undeclared sibutramine or its analogue. DH immediately ordered the suppliers to recall the products and made public the relevant information.

     In response to complaints, DH will also carry out inspection at beauty service providers and buy from them slimming products which are suspected to contain undeclared western drug ingredients for laboratory tests. If test results show that the slimming products purchased are adulterated with western drug ingredients, DH will prosecute the relevant service providers. Since 2008, a total of nine beauty service providers have been inspected, one of which was prosecuted with a fine of $10,000.

     Given that many people buy and sell slimming products on the Internet in recent years, DH has since October 2009 started to make purchases of slimming products on the Internet for laboratory tests. If test results show that the slimming products purchased contain western drug ingredients, DH will carry out a joint operation with the Police. For cases involving sale and purchase of such products on the Internet, the webmasters involved will be ordered to delete their websites and DH will make a public announcement about such problematic products.

     In general, upon detection of a slimming product containing undeclared western drug ingredients, DH will make a public announcement about the incident and call on members of the public not to use the slimming product in question. Health messages on overweight problem and slimming products are available on the webpage of the DH's Pharmaceutical Service for those who are conscious of their body weight. The webpage also provides information on all slimming products found to contain undeclared drug ingredients since 1998, so as to heighten the public's alertness regarding these problematic products in addition to dissemination of health messages on weight control among the public.

(b) Slimming products containing western drug ingredients must be registered as pharmaceutical products through an application process before they can be put up for sale in Hong Kong. Information about the products' safety, efficacy and quality is also required to be submitted for consideration.

     Trade descriptions about the performance of non-pharmaceutical products are subject to regulation under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance (Cap 362).  Under the Ordinance, any person who applies a trade description which is false to a material degree commits an offence and is liable to a maximum fine of $500,000 and imprisonment for five years.  The Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) is responsible for enforcing the Ordinance.

     Since 2008, C&ED has received only one complaint about the slimming effect of a non-pharmaceutical product. Upon investigation, there was no sufficient evidence showing that the claim involved was a false trade description.  The Commerce and Economic Development Bureau has earlier conducted a review on the scope and operation of the Ordinance in conjunction with C&ED. Apart from proposals to extend the application of the Ordinance to cover trade descriptions in respect of services, recommendations have also been made on law enforcement with a view to stepping up efforts in combating commonly seen unfair trade practices.

(c) At present, slimming products containing western drug ingredients are handled by DH's Pharmaceutical Service. These slimming products can only be put up for sale in Hong Kong after they have been registered as pharmaceutical products. Failure to do so is an offence and DH will carry out follow-up investigation.

     The Administration is now planning for the resources required for DH to implement the 75 recommendations put forward by the Review Committee on the Regulation of Pharmaceutical Products, including setting up a dedicated office for drugs to strengthen the regulatory role of the DH's Pharmaceutical Service. As proposed in the Report of the Review Committee on Regulation of Pharmaceutical Products in Hong Kong, consideration will be given to expanding the office to be a "Centre for Drug Safety" in the long run to handle all kinds of drugs, including slimming products that contain drugs.

Ends/Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Issued at HKT 14:59


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