The booming market in counterfeit slimming pills

Down in a central London basement lies the evidence of the growing trade in counterfeit diet pills.

The blister packs of pills come in bundles, some of them wrapped in Middle Eastern newspapers, others just wrapped up in elastic bands.

None of them come in the cardboard boxes in which the genuine medicines would be packaged. But there are piles of instructions, all ready to be packed up and posted to internet shoppers looking for a quick fix drug without a prescription.

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Media captionNeil Bowdler reports on the diet pill trade

Behind the pile stands Mick Deats, head of enforcement with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Glasses in one hand, counterfeits in the other, he goes through the confiscated wares.

Little active ingredient

The pills break down into counterfeits of two prescription-only anti-obesity pills - Xenical, the Roche brand name for orlistat, and Reductil, the brand name of Abbott Laboratories' sibutramine. The latter was withdrawn from sale in Europe in January over worries it could increase the risk of heart attacks in those with cardiovascular disease.

"Both of these medicines are very commonly counterfeited and we're seizing these types of medicine on a fairly regular basis here in the UK," says Deats, who is a former policeman.

"The internet has provided a global market place for the counterfeiters. They know where the demand is and they know where the maximum profits can be made. So they aim these products through illegal pharmacies and illegal websites at the developed world where internet penetration is high."

Buy such pills from a dodgy website, he says, and you will end up with pills which will do you little good.

"There is no such thing as a good counterfeit medicine. These have been made in substandard conditions, they contain impurities we don't even know about. Just because they contain some active ingredient doesn't mean that they're good."

Jail sentence

It is not just the counterfeiters that have been spying good business in diet pills.

This May, a former GP was jailed for 18 months for prescribing appetite suppressants at clinics across England, despite having been struck off by the General Medical Council.

Image caption Part of the massive haul of diet pills seized by Hertfordshire Police

Sudesh Madan, 57, of Romford, Essex, had previously admitted four counts of possession with intent to supply a controlled drug.

She sold phentermine and diethylpropion at five 'Easy Slim' clinics across the UK, leading her patients to believe she was still a doctor. Hertfordshire Police seized 24,599 phentermine and 13,269 diethylpropion tablets and capsules.

Madan had been struck off in 2001 after being found guilty of serious professional misconduct relating to the prescription of unlicensed slimming drugs.

In the same month, a 44-year-old man received a six month prison sentence for the illegal sale and supply of unlicensed slimming pills containing the drug ephedrine.

David Green, of Wickersley, Rotherham, pleaded guilty at Sheffield Crown Court to advertising and selling an unlicensed medicine without a licence as well as possession of a medicine with intent to place it on the market without the required licence.

Despite warnings from the MHRA, Mr Green continued to sell the illegal products from his website as well as via online auction sites.

Investigators subsequently seized several hundred bottles of 'Thermoslimmer' and 'Inch Aid' capsules which laboratory results confirmed contained ephedrine. The drug has been banned in the European Union and US after it was linked to heart attacks, strokes and psychiatric incidents.

Green Cross

The advice from Neal Patel, of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, to those considering buying weight-loss aids over the internet is to look for a green cross.

"We'd advise people to only buy from licensed pharmacies. People can tell if they're licensed by looking out for a logo which looks like a green cross. When they click on it, that goes through to a register of pharmacies."

"If you're buying from a bricks-and-mortar pharmacy you can be confident that the product is real," he says.

The advice of Mick Deats and the MHRA is to see a doctor.

"Our advice if you wish to obtain a prescription medicine is to see your GP and to be prescribed a medicine."

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