SINGAPORE, Jan 30 — The number of illegal health products seized by Singapore authorities surged from 737,000 units in 2022 to over 1.12 million units in 2023, an increase of more than 50 per cent.
In a statement today, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) added that 12,474 listings from local e-commerce and social media platforms were also removed last year, three times higher than the 4,569 listings deleted in 2022.
“These products were unregistered, counterfeit, or had potent medicinal ingredients and/or banned substances illegally added,” it said.
The most common forms of health products seized include sexual enhancement or male vitality products and addictive medicines, such as codeine cough syrup and sedatives, said HSA.
In June last year, HSA and the Singapore Police Force mounted an operation to clamp down on a suspected illegal codeine syndicate that ended up being one of the largest seizures in the past five years.
Around 190 litres of codeine cough syrup, equivalent to about 2,100 90ml prescription-sized bottles typically dispensed at clinics, and an assortment of pills were seized.
HSA said that product listings that were removed also included:
- Hair and beauty products, such as anti-hair loss treatment
- Facial fillers and adulterated skin whitening products
- Covid-19 related products such as test kits and symptom-relieving products
- Weight loss products, contraceptives and products for the management of chronic conditions like eczema, diabetes, gout, psoriasis or hypertension
From 2021 to 2023, HSA prosecuted a total of 55 people for the sale and supply of illegal health products.
Among the 16 prosecuted in 2023, HSA highlighted the case of a male, 35, who was sentenced to 30 weeks’ jail for the illegal importing and selling of medicines on messaging app Telegram.
HSA said it worked with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority to target the seller’s illegal activities, where more than 94,000 units of sedatives and codeine tablets, and approximately 45 litres of cough syrup (equivalent to about 500 prescription-sized bottles) with an estimated street value of about S$190,000 were seized.
Sellers and suppliers who are selling such products are liable to be prosecuted and if convicted, may face a jail term of up to three years, fined up to S$100,000, or both.
Adverse health effects
In the past year, HSA also issued public alerts on 15 illegal health products that contained potent ingredients and banned substances, or were unregistered.
The most common adulterants detected were sibutramine and potent steroids such as dexamethasone, betamethasone and prednisolone. Sibutramine is a banned toxic substance that can cause serious effects such as heart problems, psychosis and hallucinations when consumed.
Thirteen people reported adverse effects after consuming one of the 15 illegal health products. Some developed serious adverse effects like Cushing’s syndrome and Stevens-Johnson syndrome.
The former is a serious steroid-induced condition characterised by a round or “moon face” appearance, while the latter is a life-threatening skin condition with blistering and severe peeling of the skin.
HSA said that in one case, a consumer had obtained an illegal product, which was named DND Rx9, from an online seller based in Malaysia.
He had been taking the product for several months to manage his gout and subsequently developed symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome and abnormal blood results. His doctor suspected that the product could be adulterated with steroids and reported the case to HSA.
In another case, three men in their 30s suffered serious adverse effects after consuming modafinil or armodafinil — potent medicines that should only be prescribed by a doctor for medical conditions such as narcolepsy — to help improve their alertness.
They subsequently developed multiple mouth ulcers and other symptoms like rash, fever and conjunctivitis. Two developed Stevens-Johnson syndrome.
What consumers should do
HSA said that consumers should be aware of illegal health products that are falsely marketed as “natural”, “herbal” or have quick or miraculous results.
Consumers should stay away from such products which contain undeclared potent ingredients as they can cause serious adverse effects when used in the absence of medical supervision.
Additionally, illegal health products also lack quality controls, manufacturing and product information as the manufacturing and storage process of these products are dubious.
It is also difficult to determine the source of products purchased from unknown or unfamiliar sellers such as from overseas, online or street peddlers. “Consumers may therefore not be able to claim for any damages or get any refund should anything go wrong,” HSA added.
The authority advised consumers to avoid making purchases from suspicious or unfamiliar sources, be cautious of deals that sound too attractive to be true, check the products’ claims and discuss with a medical professional if unsure about the suitability of a product.
Members of the public who have any information on the sale and supply of these illegal products may contact HSA’s Enforcement Branch at 6866-3485 or [email protected].
“HSA will take stern enforcement actions against anyone who sells or supplies illegal health products.” the authority said. — TODAY