It is difficult to estimate the damage being caused by illicit counterfeit diet pills that are marketed as “natural” solutions for weight loss, but conservative estimates from the Health Ministry’s Pharmaceutical Crimes Unit say at least four people have been hospitalized so far.
“We know this is the tip of the iceberg,” said Mickey Arieli, director of the PCU.
Arieli first became aware of the developing threat when he received a phonecall last October from a source informing of him an elderly woman who had been hospitalized after taking a pill that was presented by its sellers as a natural slimming agent.
The call led to a chain of events resulting in an international criminal investigation which, due to its ongoing sensitivity, cannot be described in any detail at this stage.
“I got to the hospital and took the pills for analysis,” recalled Arieli.
The pills, called Slim Extreme, played havoc with the woman’s cardiovascular system, causing her pulse rate and blood pressure to go through the roof.
The PCU encouraged the woman to file a complaint with police, leading to a joint PCU-Tel Aviv police investigation into the source of the pills. Officers from the Ayalon police subdistrict’s serious crimes branch raided an address in Bat Yam, arresting a woman and seizing quantities of the Slim Extreme pills, as well as counterfeit Viagra tablets.
The investigation is continuing, and has taken on an international status.
IN THE meantime, Arieli is continuing to learn of the damage being caused by the pills.
“We’ve been receiving calls from all sorts of doctors from hospitals. A 20-year-old-woman displayed symptoms of psychosis after taking the pill. The same thing happened to a second 20-year-old woman who took the pills. And a 16-year-old suffered passing kidney failure,” Arieli said.
“We know they are being smuggled into Israel and that they are causing serious damage to people’s health. We are involved in an international investigation that is ongoing.”
Irrespective of the results of that investigation, people can recognize counterfeit dangerous pills through a number of warning signs, Arieli said.
“We are warning that all diet supplements that have medical indications are forbidden. Food supplements are not supposed to have medical indication,” he said.
Such indications “are the first sign that these ingredients can cause damage,” he added. “I would advise everyone not to consume pills that come with those kinds of indications. I suspect they contain active pharmaceuticals.”
Ordering pills from the Internet or over the phone is also unsafe, he said. People should only purchase pills from pharmacies and be sure they carry a Health Ministry seal of approval and Hebrew instructions.
OTHER DANGEROUS slimming pills, known as Amana Slim Care, are made in Lebanon and imported illegally.
“Just this week, my operational pharmacist [a member of the PCU] informed me that thousands of diet and energy pills made in Syria and Lebanon were smuggled into the West Bank via east Jerusalem. From the West Bank, they return to Israel,” said Arieli.
Arieli, originally from Chicago, feels it is imperative for immigrants from English-speaking countries to be aware of the dangers, and called on anyone with doubts to contact him.
He set up the PCU in 2007, and has since joined forces with law enforcement agencies such as America’s Food and Drug Administration to help fight counterfeit medicines, ringing the alarm bell about the dangers.
“We’re only three people. That’s a pretty small unit for the whole of Israel,” he remarked.
The PCU’s main goal is to work with police to track down dangerous pills and safeguard public health.
PCU members and police conduct joint raids routinely, as occurred on Thursday when they discovered hundreds of counterfeit impotence pills in Shfaram.
“We build up cases together with the police,” Arieli explained.
The PCU has identified a legal loophole which can allow some drugs to escape the Dangerous Drugs Act despite being very risky substances.
“We’ve found medicines that were supposed to be destroyed but were returned to pharmacies,” he said.
The PCU is pushing for legal changes to make it easier to prohibit
borderline substances. In the meantime, it relies on a law that
prohibits negligent supply of dangerous materials that contain hazardous
chemicals, which carries a maximum three-year penalty. “It’s what we
have to work with,” Arieli said.
The PCU’s alerts led police to raid kiosks and seize synthetic drugs
that promise to create a cannabis-like high, but which pose a real risk
to the health of users.
The PCU also works closely with Customs to try to stem the flow of the drugs.
“It’s an industry that makes millions of dollars every year. In
November, 230,000 counterfeit weight loss pills were seized at the port
of Ashdod,” Arieli said.
Those wishing to contact Arieli for more information, can reach him by
e-mail at [email protected]
or by fax at (02) 655-1776.