23 February 2019
About 60 percent of respondents aged between 19 and 25 said they have been taking dietary supplements regularly, according to a recent survey. Photo:
About 60 percent of respondents aged between 19 and 25 said they have been taking dietary supplements regularly, according to a recent survey. Photo:

Why the govt should step up regulation of dietary supplements

Recently, I came across a news report that said some dietary supplement products, which allegedly contain Ganoderma extract, a highly rare and expensive herbal substance that is often used in traditional Chinese medicine and which have allegedly been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have reached the open market in Hong Kong.

However, perhaps little known is that at present, there is no specific law in Hong Kong that regulates dietary supplements. Instead, the government relies on several dispersed and incomprehensive pieces of legislation to provide some degree of oversight of these products.

In other words, given our insufficient regulation of such products, consumers who are take these dietary supplements are basically doing so at their own risk.

As there is so much at stake with these dietary supplements, I believe it is a matter of urgency for the administration to enhance regulation of these products in order to safeguard the health of our fellow citizens.

At present, dietary supplement products for sale in Hong Kong are regulated by several different sets of legislation. For example, while dietary supplements that contain medical substances fall within the jurisdiction of the “Pharmacy And Poisons Ordinance”, those that contain Chinese herbal extracts are governed by the “Chinese Medicine Ordinance”.

However, for dietary supplements that don’t contain any medical substance or Chinese herbs, they are regarded as “conventional” foods under our existing law, and fall within the jurisdiction of the “Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance” like any other food product available on the open market.

Nor do the existing “Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations” apply to dietary supplement products either. It is because under the regulations, any pre-packed food product that contains seven specific ingredients must provide a nutrition label on its package.

However, since the vast majority of dietary supplements for sale in Hong Kong contain less than seven ingredients or substances, therefore they don’t have to provide any food label on their packages.

On the other hand, despite the fact that the Department of Health can ban any dietary supplement product which claims that it can cure any particular type of disease by invoking the “Undesirable Medical Advertisements Ordinance”, so far there have only been a handful of cases in which such products were successfully removed from the market.

It is because nowadays, most dietary supplement manufacturers have already mastered the trick to dodge the law. While highlighting their products’ effectiveness in curing certain illness through various promotion activities, they won’t state so on the package explicitly.

According to a recent survey, almost 90 percent of the respondents said they had taken dietary supplements at some point.

Among them, 70 percent said they believed the products they had taken did work. On the other hand, 60 percent of the respondents aged between 19 and 25 said they have been taking dietary supplements regularly.

As dietary supplements have become increasingly popular among the public, there is an urgent need for the authorities to refine our existing laws in order to step up regulation on these products.

As a matter of fact, for years I, along with some dietary supplement product manufacturers, have been continuously calling on the government to formulate a rigorous regulatory regime on dietary supplements so as to protect our citizens’ health and boost public confidence in these products.

Our suggestions include the government setting out a clear definition for dietary supplement products and formulating new policy and legislative initiatives to regulate them under a different set of regulations than those covering conventional foods and drug products.

At the same time, we also demand that a new, comprehensive and independent regulatory framework for the safety, efficacy and labelling of these products be established, under which all dietary supplement products must provide a detailed label on their packages that gives key information such as the substances they contain, dosing instructions, potentially adverse effects as well as a list of which type of people are not recommended to take them.

Manufacturers who fail to provide accurate and truthful information about their products on their labels must face legal liability.

On the other hand, the administration should also enhance public awareness about the importance to understand the actual necessity and health risks of taking dietary supplements, so that they can make their own informed decision.

The Department of Health should also liaise with manufacturers of dietary supplements and introduce a registration system regarding their products.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Apr. 11

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Legislative councilor and head of nursing and health studies in the Open University of Hong Kong

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