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Diet Pills and the Weight Watcher’s Dilemma

The New Straits Times, July 21, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

The diet pill tragedy is ringing alarm bells all over Asia. Last week, according to a report in the Malay Mail (July 13), China’s Ministry of Health revoked the licence of a slimming drug company after a person died from taking its product.

Recently, it was reported, a 60-year-old Japanese died of liver failure, with 11 others failing ill with signs of acute liver disorder, allegedly due to another diet pill from China.

Last May in Singapore, at least one death and several illnesses were associated with slimming products from China.

There have been reverberations here in Malaysia too. A 30-year-old factory worker allegedly died of brain damage at a Penang hospital late last month (The Star, July 2).

Ironically, making the headlines too is the issue of obesity, notably the New Straits Times report headlined: “Obesity on the rise in Malaysia” (July 5).

The report, quoting the chairman of weight Management Information Centre, said, “One in every five adults Malaysians is either overweight or obese.” Generally, a person who is more than 20 per cent above the maximum healthy body weight is considered obese.

Based on the NST report, in Malaysia, the percentage of adult women who are obese is considerably higher (7.9 per cent) than men (4.7 per cent).

Presumably many more are overweight. Although our figures on obesity are good compared with Australian or American women (13.2 and 41 per cent respectively), it is worse than Thailand, Philippines, Japan and China.

At the same time, Asians have been alerted that though they look thinner than Caucasians, they may “have more fat in their bodies”, according to health experts in World Health Organisation (WHO) forum recently (NST, July 12). They are fatter though they look thinner.

In other words, although obesity is less of a problem, many Asians may experience higher cases of obesity-related diseases.

To make it worse, there are many who underestimate the seriousness of obesity-related diseases. A recent survey in the US suggest most people are not aware of its link with cancer (NST, July 11).

According to the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), only a quarter of the adults surveyed are aware that obesity is “associated with a higher risk of colon, breast and perhaps other cancers” as well.

The Penington Biomedical Research Centre at Louisiana State University reports that obesity can also be associated with cancers of the uterus, prostate and gall gladder. This means that should the proportion of obesity remain high, there is the likehood that cancer cases will increase too. Yet cancer is only one among a host of other disease associated with obesity. Some common examples are heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. It is therefore, understandable why so many take slimming pills.

Unfortunately, few realize that there is no effective medication yet against obesity. In its absence, slimming pills become the hope of the desperate.

In some professions, the airlines and show business, for example, female employees are more or less required to maintain their figures. And the use of slimming pills becomes rampant. Incidentally, the Malaysian media is an active partner in such scams especially through direct sales over television. These paid advertisements make a number of dubious claims meant to lure customers.

One consultant was quoted as saying recently: “There is no such thing as magic pills.”

But the advertisements claim that their products make fat disappear in a few minutes, without so much as hinting at the active substances involved.

Neither is there any indication if they are registered in this country or elsewhere. But authorities and consumers alike seem to be oblivious, judging from the frequency of the advertisements even of late.

It look as if the story of fenfluramine and dexfenfluramine, the two popular anti-obesity drugs withdrawn from the global market in 1997, has been forgotten.

The fact that the former appears in one of the suspect Chinese slimming pills (Slim 10) shows our community is still not sensitive about the safety issues involved in drug use.

There are many ways to deal with obesity (www.obesity-diet.org).

By far the best approach is still to cut down on fatty foods and exercise regularly so that weight can be better managed.

After all, obesity is the outcome of a sedentary lifestyle compounded by unhealthy eating habits. In fact, AICR advocates “eating vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and getting at least 30 minutes of exercise five days a week to reduce the risk of cancer.” In this way the dietary energy intake could be used up so that no excess fat is stored in the body.

Eating low-fat food does not cause weight loss either, according to the American Heart Association in an article published in Circulation (June 11). “The bottom line is that foods made with fat substitutes, used in moderation, may provide some flexibility in food selection, but are not an affective strategy on their own for weight control.”

In short, obesity is yet another preventable condition and may not warrant the use of slimming pills.


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