Chinese Patent Medicine
In July, 1997, I saw a press release that looked like a
news article splashed across the front page of a newspaper
announcing in big headlines "DRUG-FREE HEALTH CARE DEBUTS
HERE" Included was a photo of a happy looking Caucasian
couple, one of whom was described as a native of New Mexico.
Acupuncture and herbal medicine were listed under the treatment
modalities offered. The article noted that very often acupuncturists
recommend herbs in conjunction with acupuncture adding that
herbs are used more extensively than acupuncture in China.
"Drug-free health care" that uses Chinese herbs?
I don't think so, and I don't think that the Chinese do either.
They always refer to them as "medicinal herbs" and "tradtional
Presently in the United States medicinal herbs and botanicals
drugs are classified as "dietary supplements".
That means that they are unregulated by any government agency
and can be legally sold as long as manufacturers and salespeople
don't make drug claims for them. (Go Here)
According to a front page article in the June 19, 1997,
issue of USA TODAY, China is cracking down, requiring prescriptions
for herbs that are sold off the shelf in the U.S. They quote
Michael Hanna who manufacturers and sells dietary supplements
under the name of "Arizona Natural" as saying that, "Unless
I make a health claim, the FDA can't even look at it. In
Singapore I have to fill out 20 to 30 pages about what's
Testimony presented to the President's Committee on Dietary
Supplement Labels shows that people in public health are
very disturbed by what is sold as Asian patent medicine in
Deborah Orr, a pharmacist and drug control officer with
the State of Florida, submitted a report stating that they
have Chinese grocery stores all across her state in which
there are shelves full of traditional remedies imported from
China. Most of the ingredients listed on the labels are in
Latin or Chinese.
"Testis et Penis Canitis", one of the ingredients
in Gejie Nourishing Kidney Pills, translates to dog testicle
Other medicines contain tiger bones, deer placenta and crocodile
penises. In addition to being disgusting, there is the risk
of an infection being passed from a sick animal to a person
consuming it. Both California and Florida have lists of natural
toxins such as toad venom which are commonly found in Asian
Orr's report also contains case reports of adverse reactions,
including deaths, attributed to these remedies. Before the
passage of DSHEA (Go Here), her department purchased and
analyzed such products. They discovered that many things
sold as traditional medicines contained heavy metals as well
as potent western prescription drugs like morphine.
When they found a botanical spiked or adulterated with regulated
pharmaceuticals, they removed it from the shelf only to find
the same thing surface again somewhere else with a new name.
Shopkeepers could not be prosecuted because it was impossible
to prove intent to commit a crime.
Unfortunately, Florida's experience is the norm not the
Dr. Richard Ko of the California Department of Health Services
writes of similar findings in a letter to The New England
Journal of Medicine, Vol. 339 # 12, September 17, 1998, p.
847. Of 260 products analyzed, he found that 82 contained
pharmaceuticals or dangerous levels of heavy metals such
as lead, arsenic and mercury.
These products are widely available in California being
sold in herbal stores and are accepted by many Americans
as an "alternative" form of medicine. Dr. Ko concludes
his letter by saying that, "The remaining products,
which contained no detectable adulterants, cannot be assumed
to be safe and free of toxic ingredients, in view of their
batch-to- batch inconsistency, as well as limitations in
our detection methods."
In "Monitoring the Safety of Herbal Medicines",
DRUG SAFETY 1997 Oct. 17 (4) p. 209-15, Thomas Y.K. Chan,
a Hong Kong pharmacologist notes that out of about 7000 species
of plants used in China as herbal remedies, only 230 of the
most common ones have been the subject of "in-depth
pharmacological, analytical and clinical studies." Chan
adds, "Even these studies cannot provide all the necessary
safety information, for several reasons.
Toxicological studies in animals do not necessarily reveal
all human hazards. Clinical trials in human volunteers are
often small and adverse reactions may be poorly documented.
Adverse effects that have a long latency period such as carcinogenicity
and teratogenicity will pose special problems." Teratogenicity
refers to substances such as thalidomide that cause abnormal
growth and development which results in birth defects in
the fetuses of pregnant women who consume them.
In "Chinese herbal medicines revisited: a Hong Kong
perspective" in the LANCET Vol. 342 Dec. 18/25, 1993
p.1532-4 Thomas Chan notes that while very few "acute
medical admissions" in his study were caused by Chinese
remedies, there have been reports of severe and fatal poisonings.
He says that of 150 species of commonly used plants, 10 are
toxic. I think that "known to be toxic" would be
a better way to put it.
In an article entitled "Adulteration by Synthetic Therapeutic
Substances of Traditional Chinese Medicines in Taiwan" by
Weng F. Huang, et. al. that appeared in 1997 (J Clin Pharmacol
1997;37:344-350) the authors report on a study they conducted
on 2,609 samples of traditional Chinese medicines collected
at eight major hospitals in Taiwan. 23.7% of the samples
were found to have been adulterated with synthetic drugs
not listed on the labels. Of those 52.8% contained two or
If the Chinese believe that "natural is good and synthetic
bad" as western promoters of botanical drugs would have
us believe, you have to wonder why they adulterate those
fine old traditional remedies with those nasty new synthetics.
You also have to worry about the safety of the patients unknowingly