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Buyer beware when considering weight loss products from overseas websites

29 August 2016

Australians should be extremely cautious when considering buying medicines online to lose weight, particularly from unknown overseas websites.

We receive many reports about overseas based websites offering 'herbal' or 'drug free' weight loss products. Far from being 'natural', many of these products contain ingredients which may be harmful and are not disclosed on the product label.

In Australia, many weight loss products are considered medicines. Because of this they are regulated by the TGA and have to meet quality and safety standards and be included in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG). The TGA reviews evidence before products can be included on the ARTG and legally supplied or sold in Australia.

What are the risks?

Many weight loss products purchased from overseas websites are not approved for supply in Australia. Analysis of seized products by the TGA Laboratories has found products that contain contaminants such as heavy metals or undisclosed pharmaceutical substances, including:

  • Sibutramine - a prescription-only substance in Australia. Sibutramine was withdrawn from world markets in 2010 due to increased risk of cardiac events (like heart attack) and stroke.
  • Phenolphthalein - was withdrawn from sale on many markets in the late 1990's due to concerns over increased risk of cancer with long term use.

Both Sibutramine and Phenolphthalein can cause dangerous interactions with other medications which could have serious consequences for your health.

We urge Australians to use extreme caution when considering buying weight loss medicines online from unknown websites. The products these websites sell have generally not been assessed by the TGA for quality, safety or efficacy (how well they work) and their place of manufacture is often not approved by the TGA. There is no guarantee that unapproved products meet the same standards as similar products that are approved for supply in Australia.

What can I do?

Don't take products which are the subject of a TGA alert. You can take any remaining product to your local pharmacy for safe disposal. Always talk to your doctor before you stop taking any medicine which has been prescribed to you.

If you have taken a suspect product and are worried about it you should consult your health care practitioner.

You can also:

  • Watch our video on buying medicines online
  • Be suspicious of wild claims. If a website or product seems too good to be true, it probably is
  • Make sure you're buying from a legitimate Australian pharmacy

What is the TGA doing?

We regularly publish safety alerts on known products of concern. The list can be searched alphabetically and is updated frequently.

We also work closely with the Australian Border Force (ABF) to:

  • help stop shipments of known risky products
  • sample and identify suspect products so future shipments cannot enter Australia.

If products subject to a TGA alert are found by the ABF they will be seized and destroyed.

We advise consumers to be extremely cautious when buying weight loss medicines online from unknown overseas Internet sites. Remember that these products may:

  • contain undisclosed and potentially harmful ingredients
  • not meet the same standards of quality, safety and efficacy as those approved by the TGA for supply in Australia.

Report suspect medicine or devices

If you think you may have seen or bought counterfeit medicines or medical devices, you can report them to the TGA: