Nguyen Duc Khan survived a recent stroke after a month of taking dietary supplements he received as a gift from his son – a salesman for a multi-level marketing chain.
When the tablets his son gave him began making him feel bad, Khan stopped taking them. A few weeks later, when his son came home and spotted the unused bottles, he urged his dad to continue taking them.
“He visited me a month [before my stroke] and reminded me to take the tablets to preserve my health,” said the 70-year-old poet in Dak Lak Province.
When Khan arrived at the hospital, doctors told him he would have died had he come in a minute later.
“I don’t blame my son because he wanted me to have good health," he said. "But it was the dietary supplements that worsened my health leading up to this stroke.”
Elsewhere in Vietnam, more and more people are taking dietary supplements despite warnings from experts about their poor quality and false claims.
Lawyer Phan Thi Viet Thu, vice chairwoman of the Ho Chi Minh City Consumer Protection Association, said dietary supplements were considered a luxury for the rich until about ten years ago.
“Following the boom in the dietary supplement market, many people have been able to buy products they hope will improve their health,” she said.
According to government statistics, over 10,000 dietary supplements are sold in Vietnam, 60 percent of which are produced by around 1,800 local companies.
Consumer protection agencies have found it difficult to keep pace with the output.
Early this week, Hanoi police arrested three people and seized about ten tons of fake dietary supplements in neighboring Bac Ninh Province.
The products included knock-off Australian royal jelly capsules and other items made from unidentified materials.
Police seized the contraband from eight stores that have been operating for several years.
Counterfeits aside, consumers have little faith in licensed supplements.
At a conference held in HCMC on Wednesday (January 28), Tran Dang, chairman of the Vietnam Dietary Supplement Association, said the number of the products has increased.
“However, there are no new production, trade or labelling regulations, despite the fact that they have a direct impact on people’s health.”
“Anyone can produce dietary supplements; there are no quality controls. Even dietary supplements with medicinal properties get licensed in this way,” he said.
In 2013, the Ministry of Health inspected 95 dietary supplement producers and fined 48 of them for quality, labeling and hygiene problems.
Dang said many television stations were also fined for broadcasting unapproved dietary supplements commercials that made fallacious claims about their astonishing (and impossible) medicinal properties.
Lawyer Truong Thi Hoa of HCMC Jurists Association, said there are sufficient regulations on advertisement of dietary supplements.
“However, the problem of violations in advertising the products only attracted attention after the Vinh Long TV Station was fined for relevant violations,” she said.
She said the government regulates every detail in labeling dietary supplements, from the font size to color of the warning sticker that tells consumers the product is not medicine and cannot be used as substitute for actual medicine.
“But many producers just ignore the regulations,” she said.
Nguyen Thi Huynh Mai, deputy head of HCMC Food Safety Agency, said her agency has been unable to inspect a large dietary supplement market in the city.
“We have only inspected a random sampling of vendors because we can't inspect them all,” she admitted.
HCMC is home to 64 producers and 215 exclsive traders of dietary supplements, in addition to 103 pharmaceutical firms and pharmacies that produce and sell dietary supplements.
A recent inspection of 64 producers resulted in six fines: for violating regulations on labeling, advertising and providing routine medical checkups for employees.
Doctors are now being paid kickbacks disguised as commissions to promote supplements of dubious quality.
Tran Quang Trung, director of the Food Safety Administration, said his agency recently received many complaints about doctors prescribing dietary supplements to patients at several hospitals.
The agency has instructed administrators, nationwide, to expressly prohibit their doctors from prescribing dietary supplements.
As it stands, the practice violates the nation's standing regulations on the prescription of medecine.
At the Wednesday conference, Dong Van Khiem, a city official, claimed that many doctors have been lured into the dietary supplement trade.
“Many doctors have sold their consciences for a few hundred dollars a month. In the Mekong Delta, many doctors have quite practicing medicine entirely to dedicate themselves fully to the sale of dietary supplements.”
Khiem said he was a victim of dietary supplement scam and spent a great deal of time and money on pills that did nothing to improve his health.
“In the coming lunar new year, may I wish you good health, and the presence of mind to refuse dietary supplements--unlike me!”