When *Fauzi sought to get rid of his weight problems, he came across Choco Fit, a chocolate-slimming drink. Desperate for a quick fix to overcome health issues, Fauzi was quick to get his hands on it.
Because these products had been endorsed by (Malaysian) celebrities, I was attracted to them. I thought they were suitable for me because I don’t exercise. – Fauzi, a victim of bogus health products
However, in 2019, the Malaysian Health Ministry announced that Choco Fit was among four products that contained harmful substances. The product contained Sibutramine, an anti-obesity drug that in conjunction with lifestyle modifications reduces food intake and body weight.
Some adverse effects of the drug include trouble sleeping, dry mouth, nausea and an increase in heart rate. In mid-2019, Choco Fit was blacklisted.
There has been rampant use of sub-standard health products in Malaysia over the years. They come in the form of juices, instant drinks, pills, and cheap generic drugs. In 2019 alone, the sales of bogus health products reached RM3.1 billion. This figure increased by 50% in five years.
Counterfeit and adulterated health products have remained a global issue that needs to be addressed, more so with the exponential growth of e-commerce due to the pandemic. – Lim En Ni, Chief pharmacist and Director of engagement at Alpro Pharmacy Group
When Influencers Influence The Wrong Way
Often, those who sell or purchase scam healthcare products or supplements are not certified pharmacists, dieticians or nutritionists. They talk about the products based on lived experience and testimonials but do not have the credibility to advise on health matters. In other words, it is the blind leading the blind. With the advent of social media, these digital marketers have garnered a lot of sales.
Entrepreneur and social media influencer Aliff Syukri testifies that social media has been a game changer for his products. He’s the founder of D’herbs Holdings, selling products or juices that cater to different sets of consumers. For instance, his creation, ‘Arjuna Maxx’, targets the male demographic. It claims to increase sperm count and increase their energy.
These products don’t look promising or credible, yet the company is still profiting from its agents and loyal consumers.
I think(social media) has helped me promote my products. Without social media, I wouldn’t be as popular and might have disappeared. – Aliff Syukri, Entrepreneur and Social Media Influencer
In 2017, the company was fined RM11,000 for misleading advertisements while promoting two products – ‘Jus Perawan Gold’ and ‘Air Masyur’.
If we don’t praise our own products and claim that they’re good, who would? In 10 claims, we go overboard with one. We can’t possibly be too honest. We’re selling products. – Aliff Syukri, Entrepreneur and Social Media Influencer
An Upward Trend For Health Products
Health products that seem too good to be true are actually dangerous to our health. Despite their dangers, the market for counterfeit health products continues to grow.
In July 2022, Malaysia’s Health Ministry, under its Pharmacy Enforcement Division (PED), carried out Operation Pangea XV, an international campaign against illegally imported health products.
Between June 23 and July 1, RM5.2 million worth of unregistered pharmaceutical products were seized.
Some 2,438 websites, including those from the dark web, were detected selling illegal pharmaceutical products worth RM2,652,500. – Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham, Health director-general
The operation also found an increase in sales of controlled drugs including; psychotropic substances, painkillers and antibiotics.
Almost 70% of the confiscated products were controlled drugs listed under the Poisons Act 1952. Of that amount, 90% of the controlled drugs are under the psychotropic category. The rest are antibiotics, painkillers, flu medicines and other coughing medicines that are not registered.]– Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham, Health director-general
Most of the controlled medications were found to be smuggled in from Bangladesh and India, among other countries. Additionally, the operation raided 75 premises such as residences, beauty salons and gymnasiums, all of which sold unregistered pharmaceutical products.
During the raids, 244,299 items worth RM1,707,040 were seized. – Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham, Health director-general
The False Promises Of Quick Fixes
It is easy to look at what a product promises over its contents.
Just like *Fauzi, 31-year-old Azie compromised her health as she was eager to lose a few pounds. When she came across a weight loss product that promised results in three days, Azie was sold.
However, it didn’t take long for the side effects to kick in. Reaching out, her seller only advised reducing the drink intake.
I still experienced discomforts, such as headaches and nausea. So I stopped taking it.- Azie, Full-time home baker
For some, counterfeit health products are an affordable option and a quick fix is the main lure. Others however are influenced by testimonials and are not interested in reading the fine print.
A study published in 2016 found that 25% of its respondents failed to understand the information written on the drug packaging, while an even higher percentage of 29% did not read the recommended storage conditions.
In the best-case scenario, they [fake medicines] probably won’t treat the disease for which they were intended. But worst-case scenario they’ll actively cause harm because they might be contaminated with something toxic. – Pernette Bourdillion Esteve, World Health Organisation (WHO)
Additionally, there can be toxic doses of harmful ingredients and even mass poisoning. When those with chronic diseases consume fake medication, their treatment is compromised and leads to detrimental repercussions causing disease progression, drug resistance, and death.
Such was the case of Haji Wanang, a kidney failure patient who tried a milk supplement sold online in hopes of recovery, only to end up with liver failure two months later.
We thought it was perfect. As a son, I feel regret. I’m angry at the person who sold it to us. I’m angry at the company who made the product. – Mohammad Rosli, Haji Wanang’s son
Practising Wisdom In Healthcare
When it comes to our bodies and health, quick fixes and fake supplements are not what our body needs. When we practice wisdom and nurture our bodies, it will thank us in the long run.
If there’s no demand, there’s no need for it. If there are a lot of products (and) people pay hundreds of thousands to produce the supplements, (but) if no one’s buying … they’d stop. – Ahmad Tarmizi Mohammad, general surgeon
To ensure that purchased medication isn’t counterfeit, pharmacies should require a doctor’s prescription. Aside from this, ensure that a licensed pharmacist is available. Another thing to look out for is unusual side effects.
I hope the public is more aware and does more research. Do make sure that the product is certified by the Health Ministry. Fauzi, a victim of bogus medication in Malaysia
While practising safe healthcare, we should never forget that the pharmaceutical supply chain is incredibly complicated, and each of its many links presents an opportunity for infiltration by fakes.
If in doubt, check out Know Your Medicine, a government portal increasing awareness of quality medication use. You can also check the authenticity of medicine at the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency (NPRA).
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