Unapproved diet drug linked to 10 health harm cases in ’22

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Right: Dietary jelly (Courtesy of the municipal government of Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture)
Left: Dietary chocolate (Courtesy of the municipal government of Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture)

In their efforts to lose weight, at least 10 people damaged their own health last year after consuming food products containing sibutramine, a drug often sold on the internet despite not being approved by the Japanese government.

The sale of products containing unapproved drugs is illegal, but the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has received reports of at least 10 cases of adverse outcomes last year. There have even been fatal cases in the past.

The reality is that such products can be easily purchased via social media. Experts warn that similar problems could spread in the future.

Severe palpitations

A woman in her 30s living in western Japan bought two boxes of dietary jelly for ¥8,800 last March from a video streamer who advertised the product on social media by asserting, “You can lose weight just by taking it.”

She started taking it as instructed and lost more than 4 kilograms in about two weeks. Soon afterward, however, she suffered from palpitations so severe that she could hardly stand still, and was in a constant a cold sweat.

Worried, she consulted a public health center and found that her poor physical condition was likely due to sibutramine, an ingredient in the jelly. The woman now regrets buying the product, saying, “I wouldn’t have bought it if I knew it contained an unapproved drug.”

Sibutramine was approved by U.S. authorities in 1997 as a treatment for obesity that acts on the brain to suppress appetite. However, a series of serious side effects, including abnormally elevated blood pressure, were confirmed, and about 100 people in the United States died after taking the drug. Consequently, some U.S. pharmaceutical companies stopped dealing with the drug in 2010, and the sales of the drug have ceased in Japan as well.

‘You will surely lose weight’

However, dietary jelly and chocolate containing sibutramine, believed to be produced in Vietnam, have surfaced in the Japanese market. According to the health ministry, a total of 10 people in eight prefectures, including Kanagawa, Miyagi and Fukuoka, have reported cases of nausea, dizziness and other symptoms since last spring. According to the ministry, “When the symptoms are mild, there may be many cases that public health centers are unaware of.”

Last October, Aichi Prefectural Police arrested a woman of Vietnamese nationality living in Tokyo for selling Letary jelly containing sibutramine, on suspicion of violating the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Law.

The woman advertised the jelly, which she had ordered from Vietnam, on Facebook and other sites, with words such as “It’s easy! You eat it only once a day,” and, “You will surely lose weight.” She made sales on at least 50 occasions, taking in more than ¥300,000.

During questioning, she reportedly told the police: “I thought it was a food product. I didn’t know that an unapproved drug was being used.”

Advertising on social media

The law prohibits the sale of unapproved drugs but does not prevent individuals from importing them. This is because it is necessary to ensure that foreigners visiting Japan can use medicines approved in their own countries.

In fact, sibutramine can be imported by individuals for personal use from Thailand, Hong Kong, India and elsewhere, and many of the products in question are believed to have come in as food products, while the fact that they contained unapproved drugs was concealed. A ministry official said, “It is difficult to investigate all the imported food products,” adding, “First of all, the sellers need to confirm the safety of the products they sell.

On the other hand, there are more than a few postings on Twitter and Instagram by individuals proclaiming that the food products will have dietary and health-promoting effects, using phrases such as “All you have to do is take it.”

Naoko Yoshida, an assistant professor at Kanazawa University who is knowledgeable about unapproved drugs, said: “It is highly dangerous to take a food product without knowing that it contains sibutramine. The cases of health harm found thus far are probably just the tip of the iceberg. Consumers must not be misled by easy advertisements on social media, such as ‘You can lose weight by just eating it,’ and should carefully check the seller and the product.”