An Old Bailey judge has called for new regulation on traditional Chinese medicines as a "doctor" who sold cancer-causing pills walked free from court.
Ying "Susan" Wu sold the tiny brown "Xie Gan Wan" tablets to Patricia Booth for more than five years from a shop in Chelmsford, Essex.
Mrs Booth, 58, began taking the pills three times a day to treat a skin condition but they ended up destroying her kidneys and giving her cancer.
But Judge Jeremy Roberts yesterday ruled that, as the sale of traditional Chinese medicines was totally unregulated, there was no evidence that Wu knew of the potential harm.
The judge threw out a charge of "administering a noxious substance" against the 48-year-old, of Holland-on-Sea, Essex, and she pleaded guilty to five lesser counts and was given a two-year conditional discharge.
Giving his ruling he said: "It is an unfortunate fact that there is no system in this country to regulate Chinese herbal medicine retailers like Ms Wu by requiring them to be registered with an appropriate professional body or trade association."
He said such a registration would mean retailers would be alerted to regulations.
"Somebody like Ms Wu is entitled to set up shop as a herbal medicine retailer and to operate entirely unsupervised.
"There may be a gap in our law here which the Government might wish to address."
The judge spoke of his sympathy for the "terrible damage" Mrs Booth had suffered by taking the pills.
He said he wished to express "the hope that the Government will consider introducing a proper system of regulation of retail outlets of this kind to ensure, so far as possible, that such a thing does not happen again".
The judge said of the pills sold by the defendant: "Whilst there obviously was risk, there is not any evidence that Ms Wu was aware of it."
He added that the 1861 legislation under which the more serious charge was framed appeared to have been designed for "the days of Victorian poisoners" and cases such as the "husband who slipped some poison into his wife's cocoa".
The court heard that Mrs Booth took the medicine, which she bought from the Chinese Herbal Medical Centre in Chelmsford, from February 1997 to November 2002.
She said she believed it was a "safe and natural alternative" to the antibiotics she had previously been taking for her skin condition - and which she feared could damage her long-term health.
Months after she stopped taking the Chinese pills, she was taken seriously ill and had to undergo an urgent blood transfusion. An analysis of the pills showed they contained a banned substance, aristolochic acid.
Her health deteriorated to such an extent that her kidneys were "destroyed" and she had to have them removed, she contracted urinary tract cancer, and she later suffered a heart attack.
Mrs Booth, a grandmother, had been the manager of a Government office in charge of 50 to 60 people, and in good health when she started taking the pills.
But her health problems forced her to give up her job and she must now go to hospital three times a week for dialysis.
She told the court that, when she raised concerns about the safety of the pills after reading a newspaper report about Chinese medicine, she was reassured by a man who worked at the shop that it was as safe as Coca-Cola.
Mrs Booth, who gave evidence via videolink because she was too frail to travel to court, told how she began paying £6 a bottle, later rising to £7, for the medicine, returning every 10 to 14 days to buy about three bottles a time.
She said she had been told to take three capfuls - each consisting of about 30 of the "little tiny brown tablets" - each day.
Her husband, Rodney Booth, said the couple, who married in 1985, had been left "devastated and very upset" by her health problems.
He said she had changed from a "capable, career-minded wife" to someone who needed "constant reassurance".
Mr Booth said his wife had taken the pills "in good faith" when she was feeling "quite desperate" about her skin condition.
He said: "Tricia is a meticulous person and, had she known there was any risk to herself, however slight, she would not have taken them."
Julian Christopher, prosecuting, said Wu was employed as a "Chinese doctor" at the shop, which was in business from late 1996 until August 2003.
He said: "The case is concerned with pills which the prosecution allege were given by Susan Wu to one particular patient to take every day to clear up spots on her face and which the patient continued to take for five and a half years.
"They did indeed clear up her skin but turned out to have disastrous consequences. They completely destroyed her kidneys and gave her cancer."
The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine, which represents more than 450 practitioners, said the case highlighted "the urgent need for the statutory regulation of herbal medicine in the UK".
Emma Farrant, secretary of the RCHM, said: "The RCHM is continuing to call for the statutory regulation of all practitioners of herbal medicine.
"It is unacceptable for the current situation to continue, whereby anyone can claim to be a Chinese medicine practitioner and put the public at risk."
She said regulation was "the best way to protect the public from malpractice" but that "the Government refuses to act".
The Department of Health is consulting on how to regulate herbal medicine practitioners, a spokesman said.Reuse content