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China Follows Suit on Slimming Drug

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Fifteen weight-loss products containing the drug sibutramine have been recalled across the country over concern that the diet pills could lead to an increased risk of heart disease.

The State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) made an announcement on Saturday, banning the production, sale and use of all anti-obesity medications containing sibutramine.

China's drug watchdog made the decision based on the latest research on sibutramine, which revealed that the risks of using these medications, including heart disease and strokes, outweighed the potential benefits to obese patients.

Sibutramine is a chief ingredient in anti-obesity medication that alters a patient's appetite and metabolism.

It was introduced as an anti-obesity medication in the United States in 1997 and received approval from the SFDA in China in 2000.

The SFDA named 15 weight-loss products that contain sibutramine, including Qumei capsules, which account for about half of the diet drugs on the Chinese market, and Aoquqing, another popular choice for consumers. As a result of the announcement, producers are required to recall and destroy products containing the drug.

The ban on sibutramine in China follows the US Food and Drug Administration's decision in early October to remove the drug from the market after tests established that it raised blood pressure and posed a risk to patients' cardiovascular systems.

The European Union, Australia and Canada also pulled products containing the drug earlier this year.

According to data released by the SFDA, from 2004 to 2010 Chinese hospitals received 298 reports on side effects of sibutramine, with symptoms such as cardiopalmus, or palpitations of the heart, constipation, dizziness and insomnia.

Ma Qian, a 24-year-old from Beijing, said she took Qumei about two years ago to lose weight for two months, but stopped taking the product after experiencing the side effects of a rapid heart beat and vomiting.

"You can easily get the product in drug stores without a doctor's prescription," she said.

Lu Changlin, a cardiologist at the Beijing Tongren Hospital, said sibutramine would not impair a patient's health over a short period, but the drug could harm cardiac muscles and valves if it is taken for over 12 months.

"And the damage is irreversible," he added.

China Daily's random, spot inspections of drug stores in Beijing on Sunday found all the products named in the SFDA's announcement were unavailable.

"Qumei was pulled off the shelves about a week ago because it allegedly had severe side effects," said a Beijing pharmacist in Chaoyang district.

"We received the notice to stop selling all drugs containing sibutramine. I doubt you could find sibutramine in any Beijing drug stores," she said.

Drug stores in other parts of the country, such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, have also suspended the sale of products containing sibutramine, according to media reports.

The Taiji Group, which produces Qumei, said its sales revenue exceeded 5 billion yuan (US$749.57 million) since the weight-loss product went on sale in 2000.

An official statement by the group said Qumei was voluntarily recalled on Oct 25 and customers can return the product directly to drug stores, or by calling their hotline: 400-887-7698.

Despite the ban, weight-loss products containing the drug were still available on Sunday from online stores at, the largest online shopping platform in China, where sellers insisted that the products are safe, though they will no longer be available because production has stopped.

(China Daily November 1, 2010)