Councils have called on ministers to launch a crackdown on potentially lethal, unlicensed ‘diet pills’ which can be bought online and were linked with five deaths last year.
The Local Government Association (LGA) said that websites which sell ‘quick fix diet pills’ are springing up quicker than food and drug safety authorities can shut them down, despite around five sites being pulled from the internet every day.
Many of the products available contain the highly toxic chemical dinitrophenol, also known as DNP, which is legal for use in manufacturing, but when ingested can effectively “microwave the body” from the inside, according to experts at the LGA.
A number of recent raids have exposed a growing black market industry behind thousands of online retailers who can still legally ship many of the pills to the UK. A London property targeted last week was even found to house a makeshift diet pill factory, the LGA said.
Councils are now calling for more funding for a nationwide awareness campaign, following the deaths of five people last year linked to DNP-containing pills. The LGA has also called for much tougher sentences to be handed down to those responsible for selling the pills. Currently, the maximum penalty sellers can receive under food safety laws is two years in prison.
Most slimming pills help people to lose weight by repressing their appetite. Many of the illegal pills sold online market themselves as ‘herbal’ and ‘natural’, but contain dangerous ingredients. Some are marketed alongside legal and safe diet pills, increasing the risk of consumers buying a dangerous product by mistake.
The most commonly seized product is ‘Reductil’, which was taken off the market six years ago amid fears that the active ingredient, sibutramine, increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
However, DNP-containing pills are of even greater concern. The chemical accelerates the metabolism to dangerous levels triggering side effects including fever, dehydration, nausea, vomiting, and an irregular heartbeat, the combination of which can result in a coma or death.
Cllr Simon Blackburn, chair of the LGA’s safer and stronger communities board, said that ‘natural’ and ‘herbal’ on the label of such products did not mean ‘safe’.
“Those involved in the illegal supply of diet pills aren’t interested in people’s health - they are only interested in making a profit. There needs to be longer sentences for supplying substances such as DNP because they can kill people,” he said.
“Many of these slimming pills will not be licensed medicines and contain unknown and dangerous ingredients which could seriously endanger people’s health and could cost them their lives.
“Weight loss pills should only be used on a prescription basis and obtained from a reputable high street or registered pharmacy which can trade online.”
A spokesperson for the Government’s food standards body the Food Safety Agency said it was working to tackle the sale of DNP as “so-called diet pills”
“The FSA’s National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) has launched Operation Sycamore, a proactive initiative which directly targets those criminals responsible for the trade in DNP.
“We have already launched a nationwide consumer awareness campaign to warn people about DNP. This has included social media activity and also working closely with the body building community and eating disorder charities. As many websites that sell DNP are hosted by service providers outside the UK, the FSA cannot always take a direct approach to tackling them. However, we have been successful in taking down websites through close co-operation with law enforcement bodies overseas.”
Case study: ‘I think i’m going to die’
Eloise Aimee Parry, 21, from Shrewsbury, died in hospital last April after taking diet pills bought online. Police said the tablets contained the industrial chemical DNP.
An inquest concluded that Ms Parry’s death was caused by an accidental drug overdose. Her mother, Fiona Parry, said her daughter had suffered from bulimia and the inquest heard evidence that Miss Parry (left) had sent a text message hours before her death saying she was scared she would die after having “binged/purged all night and took four pills at 4am”.
“I took four when I woke and I started vomiting soon after. I think I am going to die,” the Gylndwr University student wrote in a text message read out at the inquest.
Mrs Parry said she would “implore anyone even considering taking DNP, or something similar, not to do so”.