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Beware Weight Loss Drugs, Say Canadian Experts

o death and 13 to permanent disability.

Health Canada, which banned ephedra weight-loss products in 2001, is charged with overseeing elements of the weight-loss industry. It tries to keep up with new products through its Natural Health Products Directorate. Products that meet the agency's criteria for safety, efficacy and quality get a licence and an eight-digit Natural Product Number. All 50,000 natural health products for sale in Canada must have an NPN by 2010.

But as of April 20, only 3,203 natural health products had been licensed by Health Canada, said a spokesperson.

Many of these are likely single-ingredient products and not multiple-ingredient weight-loss supplements, says Heather Boon, associate professor of pharmacy at the University of Toronto and an expert in natural health products.

Boon advises consumers to check with their pharmacist before buying any herbal supplement without an NPN, especially if they take multiple herbs or prescription medications.

Natural weight-loss supplements and over-the-counter diet remedies make up the largest portion of the weight-loss industry. Health Canada launched the Natural Health Products Directorate on Jan. 1, 2004 to make sure all natural health products sold in Canada are reviewed for quality, safety and efficacy. But critics say the review process isn't stringent enough. York University health policy expert Joel Lexchin says over-the-counter medications should receive the same scrutiny as prescription drugs, whose manufacturers have to submit reams of scientific data, including rigorous human trials, to prove a potential drug is safe.

In a 2004 study, Robert Saper, director of integrative medicine at Boston University Medical Center, found none of the 26 most common ingredients in over-the-counter weight-loss supplements, including green tea, chromium, and guar gum, met acceptable criteria for safety and efficacy. He also said
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