Background: Weight-loss medicines, including crude drugs and herbal supplements disguised as diet-aid products, are readily obtainable and distributed widely, especially in Southeast Asia. Even if such products are unapproved or prescription-only medicines, consumers can purchase them through an agency or directly on the Internet. We evaluated the quality and safety of herbal products purchased on the Internet to reveal their influence on public health.
Methods: Diet-aid products containing Bukuryo (Poria sclerotium), Bakumondo (Ophiopogonis tuber), or Daio (rhubarb rhizome) were purchased through websites that did not provide physical addresses or which advertised misleading medicines (e.g., unapproved Cialis 100 mg tablets, Viagra 100 mg tablets) on websites. We carefully noted details in the descriptions on package inserts or accompanying product characteristics and analyzed the ingredients using qualitative and quantitative methods, namely high-performance liquid chromatography equipped with a photodiode array detector. We requested the respective manufacturers to authenticate their products through a structured questionnaire.
Results: We purchased 15 items from 15 Internet sites and imported all 15 items to Japan. One item stated to contain rhubarb rhizome was identified as a prescription medicine; the others were dietary supplements and not medicines. Even though we did not analyze the constituents of all crude drugs, we found some active ingredients in the items. Sibutramine was detected in items confirmed to be supplements, including those containing Poria sclerotium and Ophiopogonis tuber. Each capsule contained ≈ 12 mg of sibutramine, which is the daily dose for anti-obesity medicines. Sibutramine is not approved for use in Japan and its sale has been suspended in Europe and the USA owing to serious adverse effects on the circulatory system.
Conclusions: Our findings indicate that dietary supplements containing injurious ingredients are distributed to Japanese consumers and potentially to a broader international audience, and that purchasing them through unreliable websites bears potential health risks. To avoid potential adverse events, there should be adequate alerts about the risks of taking products without appropriate indications.