Investigation: Imported pills could be dangerous for dieters

Investigation: Imported pills could be dangerous for dieters
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Lose weight without diet and exercise - sounds great, but is it too good to be true?

A call to the Eyewitness News tip line shone a light on a diet drug sold by one woman that contains an illegal ingredient known to cause heart attacks. The Eyewitness News investigative team spoke to that woman and the Food and Drug Administration, which says there is a growing problem with deadly diet drugs.

The Eyewitness News tipster, who did not want to be publicly identified, bought Hokkaido Slimming Pills online from an overseas distributor, then sold them to her friends and people on Facebook.

"My orders were anywhere from 60 to 20 bottles, and they were shipped no more than 16 bottles," the tipster said.

Business appeared to be booming, until she received a letter from U.S. Customs, claiming that her pills contained a controlled substance, sibutramine.

Sibutramine is the same ingredient in the prescription weight loss drug Meridia. That drug was taken off the market in 2010 because of an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

The tipster claimed that when she received the Customs letter, she informed all of her customers of the risk. Before the letter, she said she was warned about the pills on Facebook.

"One of the other girls that were selling them said you'll be getting a letter from Customs. That's all I heard about it," she said.

But there may have been a red flag, even before that U.S. Customs letter was delivered to her home. The tipster said sometimes her packages would arrive covered in happy birthday wrapping paper.

U.S. Customs, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FDA say adulterated supplements are becoming an epidemic, and they are cracking down on their importation.

"We have, in certain ports around the country, a testing mechanism. A person can run a test on the spot to see if the product contains sibutramine," said Siobhan DeLancey of the FDA.

According to DeLancey there are two kinds of supplements that are cause for concern. The first are those that claim to cure diseases and do absolutely nothing. The second, the kind the tipster ordered, are adulterated supplements that contain a pharmaceutical.

"Sometimes we see other contaminants in these, as well, like drugs that were in Fen Phen, which were quiet famously banned from the market several years ago," explained DeLancey.

The Eyewitness News tipster said she immediately stopped selling the supplement after learning of what was inside her pills. She said she started to put out warnings on Facebook, where she received backlash from other users and sellers.

"A lot of them were accusing me of selling fake pills. That is not true, my pills were authentic, and they have the same seal that everyone else was selling," she said.

Eyewitness News went on the Web to investigate how a consumer could tell the difference between the "real" and "fake" Hokkaido Slimming Pills. Websites show box comparisons identifying which seals certify a product as authentic. The problem is that there are many different seals all claiming to be authentic.

"There is no requirement for these manufacturers to provide the FDA their labeling, so we really don't know we don't know what these stamps or labels mean," said DeLancey.

So, how do you know which pills are authentic or safe? The FDA said there's no way to know for sure without a lab test.

"We are trusting that the labels are truthful and that they are not misleading, but, unfortunately, in a lot of cases, that's not backed up by the product in the bottle," warned DeLancey.

Finally, Eyewitness News took the pills and their listed ingredients to internal medicine doctor John Hewitt for his opinion on their effectiveness. The listed ingredients are as follows: dill extract, Chinese rose extract, trumpet creeper extract, evening primrose extract and lotus. Dr. Hewitt shared his opinion of the ingredients saying, "They don't seem harmful, but there is certainly no scientific evidence that it would help you lose weight. If anything, it fell to the laxative side of the equation."

According to the FDA, there are some warning signs to look for if you are buying supplements. First, it warns consumers to beware of anything that makes claims that are too good to be true. Another warning sign is if the name of the manufacturer or their contact information is not present.

Bottom line: Be careful of what you are putting in your body, because, ultimately, your health and safety is in your hands, the FDA said.