Korea's use of slimming pills and appetite suppressants ranks near the top in the world despite an obesity rate of 3.5 percent, only a quarter of the OECD's average 14.6 percent.
Production and import of obesity drug Sibutramine rose 11 times from W4.4 billion in 2003 to W49 billion in 2008 (US$1=W1,140). The market for psychotropic appetite suppressants, which are categorized as narcotics by the International Narcotics Control Board, also grew four-fold.
It is a paradox that one of the skinniest countries in the world consumes the largest amount of diet drugs. In a survey of 1,000 Koreans aged 15 to 59 by Consumers Korea, 86 percent had gone or were on a diet in 2008, while 13 percent said they had resorted to diet pills.
The problem is that even people with average weight take diet pills and doctors prescribe them recklessly. In compliance with World Health Organization standards, the Korea Food and Drug Administration recommends that they are administered only for those with a body mass index of 30 or above, but the survey shows 63.1 percent of those who had ever tried to lose weight were within the average weight range. The BMI is calculated by dividing a person's weight by the square of their height, and an index of 25 or above is considered obese.
Slimming pills and appetite suppressants affect the brain, and overuse or prolonged use can cause insomnia, palpitation and depression, which can be worse for slim people, experts warn.
Lax regulation also plays a part. The European Medicines Agency suspended the sale of Sibutramine on Jan. 21, but it is still in use here. The KFDA is simply advising against the use of the drug, saying no significant side effects have been reported here. It banned the drug for use only among those aged 65 or over and those younger than 15, with the final decision postponed until mid-April.
The situation is no different for appetite suppressants. Currently four such drugs, phentermine, phendimetrazine, diethylpropion, and mazindol, are available here. Only two countries, Korea and the U.S allow sales of all four. The EU prohibits all of them. Korea’s consumption of phendimetrazine ranked second in the world in 2005, and that of phentermine third.
Some 80.4 percent of the medicines administered here for obesity treatment included narcotics, Consumers Korea said. Some 37 percent of consumers on appetite suppressants were given the drugs for over 30 days, going beyond the KFDA recommendation, and 4.7 percent for as long as three months or more. "Since most slimming pills are not covered by medical insurance, there is no statistics on their actual use, and the government is not taking prompt measures against Sibutramine," Korean Pharmacists for Democratic Society said.