23 January 2019
Most dietary supplements available in Hong Kong have managed to slip through the regulatory net. Photo: The HK Shopper
Most dietary supplements available in Hong Kong have managed to slip through the regulatory net. Photo: The HK Shopper

Time to tighten regulation of dietary supplements

According to recent media reports, there are quite a lot of different weight-loss and breast-boosting products on the market. While some of these products consist of unknown content, others have been found to contain either banned or restricted pharmaceutical ingredients, thereby posing a significant health risk to consumers.

That these potentially dangerous and illegally marketed health and cosmetic products remain rampant on the open market is indeed an indictment of our regulatory mechanism for dietary supplement products.

In fact, over the years, I have been repeatedly calling on the government to tighten regulation of dietary supplements that are being sold on the local market in order to safeguard the health of consumers.

Unfortunately, these calls have largely gone unanswered, and as a result, we still don’t have a comprehensive piece of legislation that specifically deals with the safety, contents and effectiveness of dietary supplements.

At present, dietary supplements and health products on sale in Hong Kong are loosely and separately regulated by different laws. For example, for products that contain pharmaceutical compounds, they fall within the jurisdiction of the Pharmacy and Poisons Ordinance (Cap. 138), whereas those that contain Chinese herbal ingredients are regulated by the Chinese Medicine Ordinance (Cap. 549).

However, the reality is, most dietary supplements available in Hong Kong have managed to slip through the regulatory net since only a very small portion of them contain either pharmaceutical ingredients or Chinese herbs.

Nor is our existing food label system laid down by the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations (Cap. 132W) able to provide sufficient oversight of dietary supplements. It is because under the current law, only pre-packed food products that contain seven or more nutritional ingredients are required to carry food labels.

In other words, our existing food label system is barely applicable to dietary supplements since only a handful of them contain more than seven nutritional ingredients.

To address the issue, I have put forward a proposal on how to tighten regulation of dietary supplement products to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor during a recent consultation session on her upcoming policy address.

In my proposal, I firstly urged the administration to establish a clear definition for “dietary supplement products”, under which these products would be separated from “food” and “drugs” and be regulated independently.

In fact, the government can draw insights from countries and regions which have already passed food supplements legislation such as mainland China, Taiwan, Australia and the US on how to define “dietary supplements”.

Then secondly, I suggested that the administration immediately draft a comprehensive and integrated piece of legislation that specifically regulates the safety and hygiene of dietary supplements. The authorities should also test these products for harmful substances and inspect their manufacturers regularly in the days ahead.

In the meantime, the government should require manufacturers and marketers to provide a “supplement facts” label on their products, in which they must list the names and amount of all dietary ingredients present in them, the recommended daily dose, the instructions for use, their possible side effects as well as who should avoid taking them.

On the other hand, the authorities should at the same time provide legal oversight of the “function claims” made by manufacturers or marketers of these products. The government can consider either taking the initiative and testing the alleged health benefits of these supplements, or asking their manufacturers to provide accreditation reports or scientific proof to substantiate their claims.

Then finally, the government should consider setting up a registration system for dietary supplement products and publishing a list of approved products so that consumers can use them as a reference. Meanwhile, the administration must also educate members of the public about the potential risk of taking dietary supplements, so that they can make an informed decision about whether to take these products.

I believe the new administration should work promptly and aggressively to close the legal loopholes on dietary supplements and tighten regulation of them in order to better protect the health of our citizens.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sep 12

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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

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