Marketing drugs in the guise of supplements is illegal in the United States. Tainted Pai You Guo found where Chinese supplements are sold is just one small part of that global business. Federal authorities are struggling to identify and intercept these black-market goods, which, they warn, pose grave health risks.
The makers of legal dietary supplements — the kind found at GNC, for example — acknowledge they are reluctant to raise too many alarms. Even though there is little evidence that many dietary supplements provide real health benefits, legal supplements, from multivitamins to ginkgo biloba, are a big and growing business. Americans spent $28.1 billion on them last year, up from $21.3 billion five years ago, according to estimates from Nutrition Business Journal, a market research firm.
Many millions more are also being spent annually on black-market products, particularly those marketed for weight loss, bodybuilding and sexual enhancement. Some of these products, according to the F.D.A., contain amphetamines, synthetic steroids, laxatives and compounds like the active drug in Viagra. Officials say such products can cause heart attacks and strokes, and can damage the kidneys and liver. A few people in the United States, they say, have died after taking them.
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