Diet pills containing banned substances sold on ecommerce sites

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Yohimbine synephrine diet pills

The UK’s main consumer champion has revealed how easily consumers are able to purchase diet pills containing yohimbine and synephrine in an investigation into popular ecommerce sites.

Despite warnings about the ingredients’ safety, Which? consumer group  were able to purchase a sample of nine products​ containing either yohimbine or synephrine, three from eBay, and AliExpress.

Of the nine purchased, two carried no dosage information or warnings of effects to health that includes an increase in blood pressure and heart rate with heart and kidney damage in extreme cases.

“It is concerning that our investigation has revealed these slimming supplements containing potentially dangerous ingredients are readily available on online marketplaces,”​ says Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection Policy at Which?

“The limited regulation of these sites is not working – and that’s leaving people exposed to substances that can be harmful.

“Online marketplaces must be given greater legal responsibility for the safety of products sold on their sites, so that shoppers are far better protected,”​ she adds.

“Regulators also need to be more proactive in policing potentially dangerous products that are offered for sale on these sites, which are becoming increasingly popular places to shop.”

Shipping available worldwide

Which investigation 1
Which? bought a selection of nine products containing yohimbine and synephrine. ©Which?

Which? also discovered that each platform had at least a dozen products containing these ingredients for sale at the time of the investigation.

The cheapest product cost €2.79 (£2.39) plus postage, while others were for sale for €93 (£80). These products could be shipped to countries including India, the USA and Poland, for free in some cases.

eBay sales information, which is available publicly, showed one pouch of synephrine powder for ‘weight management’ had been bought 197 times. One yohimbine product had been purchased over 146 times.

Both yohimbine and synephrine are herb extracts regularly used as ingredients in weight loss capsules and pre workout products.

Both regulators, and the industry itself, have long been urged​ to do more to test and improve quality control of herbal supplements, with industry associations responding by noting that incidents were ‘isolated’ and generally related to finished products imported in to the EU from elsewhere.

UK regulation currently bans the sale of yohimbine, except when sold by a pharmacist. Synephrine’s regulatory status is less clear with regulators stating it looked at products on a case-by-case basis.

Synephrine’s beneficial  effects meant it would be classed as a prescription-only medicine and thus subject to strict quality control and safety requirements.

Commenting on the Which? findings, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said it would ‘review’ the products uncovered in the investigation.

“Where we find products deemed as medicines and not holding an appropriate authorisation, we take action,”​ they added.

Slimming supplement regulation

The UK shares the bulk of slimming supplement regulation between three government organisations – the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the MHRA and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

Which investigation 2
These pills contain yohimbine. ©Which?

In a statement, a DHSC spokesperson said, “Food supplements are tightly regulated and anyone selling prohibited substances as part of a food product faces prosecution. The Medicine and Healthcare Regulatory Agency is looking into this issue.”

Meanwhile, eBay said the products highlighted were, “banned from eBay’s platform and have been removed.

“In addition to our own prevention teams and technology, eBay works closely with the MHRA and other regulators across the globe who directly report and remove listings of concern,” ​the platform added., a US-based shopping platform said, “Per our Merchant Policies and Terms of Service, we generally restrict the sale of products that require a prescription or a medical professional’s supervision. 

“The sale of vitamins and supplements is limited to a finite number of pre-approved merchants within specific regions.

“Each of those merchants are required to provide relevant safety certifications and legitimate proof of authorisation,” ​the site added.

“The listings highlighted by Which? are being removed from our platform, and we will continue to investigate ways in which we can actively prevent such products from re-listing.”

AliExpress echoed similar sentiments, with the firm taking customer safety ‘very seriously’ and that it worked hard to ‘ensure a safe shopping environment.’

“The items identified by Which? as part of its investigation have been removed from the AliExpress platform. Sellers who have these products listed will be penalised according to our policies.”

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