The interesting tale of the slimming pill that was and isn't and may be…
Thanks to noseweek (www.noseweek.co.za) for permission to reprint this article published in the August 2010 edition.
Until he realised there was more money to be made in selling tablets than used cars in Ermelo, Uys was only paying some R15,000 per year in income tax. But he saw the light. Starting up a partnership with one Marius Venter, Uys began importing slimming tablets from the source of just about everything we now consume; China. The tablets were energetically marketed under the brand name Simply Slim, to what may be called the Huisgenoot market — those legions of poppies and tannies and gentle ladies of all kinds, from Bredasdorp to Witbank, who have been cruelly disabused of the notion that comfortable is cool.
Uys and Venter set up an elaborate system of agents and sub-agents, with eager participants paying hefty agency fees for geographic exclusivity -and watched the money roll in. A bottle of tables costing them R50 was sold to agents for some R350, and sold on to the public for R590. Within no time Uys was boasting a monthly turnover of some R43m. Yes: FORTY-THREE MILLION. (Presumably he now pays a bit more tax.)
At some point Uys and Venter fell out (seemingly over bad publicity surrounding the product), and Uys's girlfriend Mariesa Troskie stepped into the breach. The pair made the most of the fruits of their labour: an island house in Mozambique, fancy cars, ski boats – the usual trappings.
Now Simply Slim wasn't successful simply because it was well marketed; the product actually worked. And therein lies the problem: Simply Slim worked because it contained sibu-tramine. As Dr Roy Jobson, lecturer of pharmacology at Rhodes University, explained in the Mail & Guardian's online "Thought Leader" column: "Sib-utramine is a schedule 5 substance, which means it can only be made available on prescription from a medical doctor, who would prescribe sibutramine because it has been proven to promote weight loss. [But] what the medical doctor prescribing sibutramine would know – and your average lay person distributor of Simply Slim would not know – is that there are contra-indications to the use of sibutramine."
Contra-indications like eating disorders, psychotic illness, coronary artery disease, hypertension, epilepsy, drug or alcohol abuse, and porphyria. Sibutramine should also be avoided by children under 18, and should not be used in conjunction with substances likely to increase blood pressure.
Now, in South Africa, where things are usually viewed only in black or white, there is a very grey area when it comes to "complementary" medicines: unlike conventional medicines they don't need registration. The Medicines Control Council (MCC) gets notified of a complementary medicine under the rubric of a "call-up", whereby an official number is allocated, but no analysis takes place. So the trick is to market your product as a herbal preparation.
As Simply Slim's PR spin-guy, Lance Rothschild, puts it, in response to Dr Jobson's attack: "The MCC has since 1965 consistently treated herbal products which do not contain scheduled substances as complementary medicines." Jobson replies that the way Simply Slim is marketed, and its intended use, in fact make it a true medicine: "Simply Slim is a medicine because it is used for a purpose which meets the definition of a medicine. Just because a product contains a few herbs does not make it a complementary medicine – all slimming products are classified as medicines. In my understanding of the Medicines Act, this means that any product containing pharmacological substances claiming to assist with weight loss must be registered with the MCC, and if it has not been, it is in contravention of the Act."
As the popularity of Simply Slim grew, so did the complaints – heart problems, high blood pressure, one suspected death. These complaints found their way to the MCC, and eventually Dr Richard Botha had the product analysed – and discovered that it contained sibutramine. He submitted a report to Dr Joey Gouws of the MCC on 3 December 2009, and after further analysis of Dr Botha's sample, the Council decided, on 27 January, that sales of Simply Slim should be suspended and the product be further tested.
The MCC issued a statement: "The Council concluded that the risks associated with the use of weight-loss product Simply Slim are greater than the benefits, and the can continue to be sold."
Did the distributors of Simply Slim then submit the product for registration; did they accept they had made a mistake and apologise to their tens of thousands of customers? Yeah, right.
The cowboys went for other tried-and-tested approaches: delay things as long as possible, fudge the issue, attack your detractors, and, above all, bullshit your way through.
For starters, they took the view that the MCC had acted beyond its powers and the ban was therefore unlawful. They lodged an appeal in terms of the Medicine and Related Substances Act – and argued that this legal appeal had the effect of suspending the ban. Justifying this tactic, Simply Slim's Lance Rothschild argued that the starting point of debate must be the fundamental rights entrenched in the Bill of Rights "which entitles Simply Slim to freely conduct its business, subject only to limitations which are reasonable and justifiable, taking all relevant factors into consideration".
Jobson's outraged response: "Since when does administrative justice override public safety? The Constitution states that everyone has the right to bodily and psychological integrity." Rothschild's "play the man not the ball" riposte to this: "Maybe Dr Jobson can disclose whether his facility at Rhodes University is being sponsored in any way by manufacturers of prescription medicines in the RSA, which have to compete with Simply Slim." Jobson's even angrier response:
"Any insinuation about my being motivated to blog about Simply Slim because of possible competitors' sponsorships received by the Division of Pharmacology in the Faculty of Pharmacy at Rhodes University is insulting and contemptuous."
When the cowboys and girls finally realised that they weren't going to win the fight, they decided on a new approach: Why don't we just take the sibutramine out of the product? That will take the heat off; the product will no longer work, but who needs to know?
So they did a re-launch, presenting the "new" Simply Slim as an improved product. They sent a sample of the new product to the MCC, thereby getting themselves an official number, and rewrote their website info: "It's back – the slimming product that will change your life. Simply Slim is now manufactured in South Africa with strict quality control processes. Simply Slim is a natural herbal-mix capsule that can help you manage your busy life and assist you with your weight loss journey… all you need to do is take one capsule daily and maintain healthy eating habits."
And under FAQs: "Is your product sibutramine-free? Yes, our product is tested by reputable independent laboratory Sedek Laboratory. Did Simply Slim receive a registry number from the MCC prior to the re-launch? Yes, Simply Slim obtained registry number 141468 for the new product, on 29 March 2010."
Jobson puts this claim in context: "On 29 March Simply Slim made a submission to the MCC in accordance with the 2002 Complementary Medicines call-up. The submission was received and stamped with a registry number, as are all communications with the MCC. In all likelihood the person receiving and stamping the submission was a clerk whose job is to sort the voluminous correspondence. Simply Slim seems to have interpreted the allocation of a registry number as permission for their 'now made in South Africa' product to be re-launched. This is highly misleading and dishonest."
Jobson also notes further dishonesty in the website: "The Simply Slim web-site quotes testimonials from 'satisfied users' of the previous product – not the new one. This surely compounds the dishonesty."
The MCC issued a statement saying that the re-launch was unlawful and "in defiance of the ban" because Simply Slim had not yet been tested. Jobson agreed: "The product must be registered as a medicine (the MCC has obviously decided Simply Slim is not a complementary medicine). [The] imported Simply Slim product was clearly — in the words of the Department of Health – 'a serious public health risk'."
Rubbish, replied Rothschild – there's been no defiance of the ban: "The MCC provided Simply Slim with a letter that the impugned decisions only apply to the so-called 'old product'… and not to the 'new product'."
The MCC has yet to take action to enforce its ban on the sale of Simply Slim.
Noseweek spoke to Rothschild at some length and it emerged that Uys and Co were acting hard done-by: The MCC didn't follow correct procedures; the minutes of the meeting of 27 January 2010 were not made public; complaints lodged about Simply Slim were never properly investigated; there's no proof that what was tested was in fact Simply Slim; etc. Their view is it's all a conspiracy against them: the complaints were bogus, probably made by competitors; the products tested (maybe counterfeits) weren't Simply Slim; samples were deliberately contaminated; there were vested interests involved in the ban.
Rothschild admitted that he had no evidence that Dr Jobson's academic outfit was being financed by competitors, and said he had "simply asked the question". But legal proceedings are going ahead because Simply Slim's reputation needs to be restored.
But isn't it fraudulent to sell a new product – with the effective ingredient missing – under the old name? asked noseweek. There's no fraud, said Rothschild; Simply Slim never contained sibutramine in the first place – we're selling the same product as before.
Now there's a thing!