Clenbuterol: The new weight-loss wonder drug gripping Planet Zero

You can lose weight the hard way. Or else there's Clenbuterol, this season's quick-fix, which makes the pounds melt away. There's just the small matter of the side effects - heart problems, vomiting, headaches, shakes... Katy Guest investigates
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Indy Lifestyle Online

As cruel as it is to break the news to Louise Redknapp at just this point in time, dieting as a route to size zero has suddenly become as passé as last season's hem-line. Earlier this month on ITV, the former popstrel and footballer's wife endured a brutal diet and exercise regime in order to "lose her trademark curves" (she is a UK size eight) and crash-diet her way Hollywood size zero. She lost the weight, along with her social life, her good health and her joie de vivre.

But now you don't need to starve yourself to join the likes of Victoria Beckham, Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Ritchie on the farther reaches of emaciation. The latest celebrity diet secret makes the fat melt away without anyone having to lift a finger - or a stick of celery. It is called Clenbuterol, it is the new weight-loss wonder drug, and it is rapidly becoming the axis on which Planet Zero spins.

Those who claim to be in the know have named Clenbuterol the celebrity quick fix of the season. Recently, on the gossip website Popbitch, one spoilsport pointed the finger. "LA's current concentration-camp look isn't just the result of cocaine and eating disorders," said the post. "Everyone's doing Clenbuterol. Prescribed as an asthma medication, [it] is taken by body-builders and now weight-watchers for its amazing fat-burning qualities... ever wondered why celebrities always seemed to be hospitalised for asthma, dehydration and exhaustion?"

The website is approximately right: Clenbuterol is a steroid-like chemical, initially developed to alleviate asthma symptoms in horses by relaxing the muscles in the airways. Its stimulant effect on the heart and central nervous system mimics the actions of adrenalin or amphetamines, and it is also used in animals as a partitioning agent - a substance that increases lean muscle mass and reduces fat deposits.

Clenbuterol is illegal in this country for human or even animal use, to treat asthma or anything else. This is because it causes side effects, such as palpitations and arrhythmia [irregular heartbeat], and has been responsible for several cases of poisoning in humans. This may not trouble Planet Skinny, but it is seriously worrying doctors on both sides of the Atlantic.

In most countries in Europe, Clenbuterol is forbidden for use in animals that will enter the food chain. But that does not always prevent its use. Because it increases muscle definition and reduces fat, livestock are often dosed with the drug to make them appear more attractive to buyers. In Spain in 1994, 140 people were hospitalised after they consumed meat tainted with the drug and suffered dizziness, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, shakes and headaches. Just over a year ago, the Chinese newspaper People's Daily reported that 336 people in Shanghai had been poisoned after eating pork tainted with Clenbuterol. The drug had been banned by the Chinese government in the 1990s.

Last week a Home Office spokesman told The Independent: "Clenbuterol is a hormone growth stimulant and a Class C drug. It is an offence to supply or have intent to supply Clenbuterol. There is no possession offence - although obviously if somebody had so much that they seemed to be intending to supply, they may be prosecuted. It carries a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine."

The rules seem straightforward, but obviously people are getting hold of Clenbuterol somehow. Its use has increased since steroids were banned in sports in the 1990s, according to the British Medical Journal, and now diet junkies are logging on to bodybuilding messageboards and asking posters for advice on how to use it. Clenbuterol is also banned by the International Olympic Committee, but non-competitors don't mind using it. Their advice to dieters looking for a source: buy it on the internet.

A quick google search for "buy Clenbuterol" turns up more than a million matches. The first of them is a website called Clenbuterol King, which pleads with potential customers: "Don't listen to the sales sites. Get the real info." Posing as a concerned potential customer, I e-mailed their advisers. "I have used Clenbuterol myself (and I mean that sincerely)," came the reply. "I have battled with my weight ever since I can remember, but Clenbuterol is the kick-start I needed. I was 96kg and am now 84.5kg." The site was also keen to stress the celebrity connection - confirming that they, too, had heard the rumours about the particular names I mentioned. "We do have a number of stars on our books," I was told. "Naturally I can't give you names. But yes this is the weight-loss tablet of choice for those in Hollywood. This medication was their secret."

When health concerns were raised the spokesperson was reassuring, suggesting that I had a general check-up with a GP and read the contraindications on the website. Otherwise, the line was: "I've taken it and I'm fine." The Clenbuterol King website says it can post 200 20mcg tablets to the UK for $160 (£85), within seven days.

The site is quite realistic when it comes to side effects. "Because Clenbuterol is so good at what it does, you will likely experience... muscle cramps, increased blood pressure, increased energy [and] slight shaking," it says. It suggests eating bananas to combat cramps and advises not taking Clenbuterol after 3.30pm as it may induce insomnia, and not too close to a workout because it can affect breathing. It also warns that users may experience nausea, dizziness, drowsiness, tremors, dry mouth and vomiting. And this is the site that is trying to sell it.

Strange as it seems, those who have used the drug talk of even more frightening side effects. An anonymous user posting on a messageboard based in the States wrote: "I got some cramps in my calves, feet and hamstrings. They hurt A LOT!!! I didn't have a problem sleeping or any other sides... besides the increased heart rate. Resting I was at 90 beats per minute..." Weightlifters' forums discussed the drug in terms perhaps characteristic of their sport. "I was sweating like a rapist," said one. "Just one [tablet] gives me 'speed dick'," replied another.

A user who recommended Clenbuterol as a diet aid described an accidental overdose. "Maybe my vitals would help a little. My heart rate when I got to the ER was 178 and at its peak about two hours later was just above 200." Another user who claimed to have discussed the drug with a doctor warned: "What people need to know is that Clen is a dangerous drug and [it's] unlike steroids. Long term side effects such as left-sided cardiac atrophy can occur very quickly - in as little as one month in some cases when taken in high doses. Other side effects can quickly occur when overdosing: tachycardia [sudden, rapid racing of the heart] hypokalemia [elevated levels of potassium, potentially leading to fatal arrhythmia], hypophosphatemia [depleted phosphate levels], potassium depletion, taurine depletion, headaches, tremors, and vertigo..." What was most alarming about these posts was that none of them advised stopping taking the drug: they were all too entranced by its effects.

So, if a drug this dangerous is entering the country so easily, shouldn't the Government be doing something about it? Well, it is - after a fashion. A spokesman for the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) said that, because the drug is not licensed for humans in the UK, its control would come under the remit of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) or the Home Office. Defra said: "Clenbuterol is banned for use in animals. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate checks for [its] presence as part of its residues surveillance and can confirm it has not recently been detected. Defra and the VMD would be keen to receive any evidence of alleged illegal activity regarding giving this to animals. The MHRA would be able to confirm... the penalties for use [by humans] if banned."

The Home Office also thought it was the responsibility of the MHRA. "Internet supply is registered by the MHRA, and of course the law enforcement agencies," a spokesman said. "If a site hosted by a UK service provider contains illegal material, the Home Office would issue an order to take [it] down." Outside the UK, of course, there is not much the Government can do. The Home Office added that customs officials use intelligence and detection techniques, including X-rays, to search post coming into the UK from abroad. If they found Clenbuterol being sent to a British consumer they would confiscate the drug and may refer the case back to the MHRA.

The MHRA was confused. "When it comes to prescription medications or unlicensed medications, the Home Office is right, they are our responsibility," said a spokesman. "If somebody has a website abroad selling a medication that is not licensed in the UK, we would contact our counterparts overseas and ask them to take action. But under the Misuse of Drugs Act, Clenbuterol is a Class C drug, not a medication: it is a Home Office, police or customs issue."

That said, the MHRA has been working to warn the public about buying drugs online. One of the main concerns, they say, is that "there may be no legal recourse in the event of problem". A problem like sweating, palpitations and rapid weight loss, for example? Somehow that doesn't seem likely to put the dieters off.

Other slimming drugs

HOODIA

Five years ago, the British drug company Phytopharm patented an active ingredient in a cactus-like plant called hoodia that is used by the San bushmen of Southern Africa to ward off hunger. Unilever and Phytopharm have been working together to market the product as a diet drug, but the San are battling Phytopharm for some of the £21m they will receive from Unilever, claiming bio-piracy.

ALLI

GlaxoSmithKline has paid $100m for the US rights to Alli, a drug currently available only on prescription in the US. It works by preventing the body absorbing fat. Steve Burton, the man who developed it, used the drug to lose 60lb.

PHENTERMINE

The International Narcotics Control Board has appealed to the Government to curb the illegal sale of prescription drugs over the internet. The INCB named 14 appetite suppressants, prescribed to treat obesity, attention deficit disorder and narcolepsy, including Phentermine, which has a 45 per cent share of the world market, Fenproporex (23 per cent) and Amfepramone (18 per cent). INCB president Philip Emafo warned: "They are being used indiscriminately to feed the slimming obsession. Effective intervention by local competent authorities is a must."

AMPHETAMINES

Taken in the 1950s by desperate housewives keen to lose weight, amphetamines, are still abused by some as a diet drug. By 1948 they were prescribed to two-thirds of weight-loss patients, and in the 1970s two billion pills were consumed, including by children.

THYROID EXTRACT

In 1893, thyroid extract was marketed under the brand names Frank J Kellogg's Safe Fat Reducer, Corpulin and Marmola. It carried risks of osteoporosis, sweating, chest pain, and sudden death.

LAXATIVES

Laxative use for weight loss began in earnest in the 1920s. Jane Fonda has described using them as a teenager in order to "have your cake and not eat it, too".

DINITROPHENOL

The benzene-derivative in World War I explosives, insecticides and herbicides was used by 100,000 people in the 1930s. It works by increasing metabolic rate, and side effects included rashes, blindness, and death by hyperpyremia (fever due to increased metabolism).

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