A lawsuit filed March 20 against what is perhaps China's most famous traditional medicine producer alleges Yunnan Baiyao (云南白药) powder formulations contain toxic components not disclosed on its packaging. The suit, submitted to a Liaoning court, claims the omission of alkaloid ingredients included in the medicine needlessly endangers consumer health.
Wang Hai (王海), a self-styled consumer rights activist, accused the pharmaceutical giant of violating Chinese law regarding drug labels. He explained to the court that while packaging of Yunnan Baiyao powder sold outside of China contains an active ingredients list, no such catalogue is available to Chinese buyers. Wang went on to claim that Yunnan Baiyao contains dangerous levels of the toxin aconitine.
The lawsuit requests Yunnan Baiyao recall all products that include aconitine. Wang is also seeking damages totaling 11.5 yuan (US$1.85) — the price he paid for one package of the medicine in question. The civil action adds to Yunnan Baiyao's growing list of recent legal woes.
Hong Kong authorities ordered a comprehensive recall of the drug maker's products on February 5 due to safety concerns. The following day the corporation released a statement disclosing some of its products contain organic components extracted from plants of the genus Aconitum — referred to collectively as 'wolf's bane'.
Plants of this genus contain the toxin aconitine, which has been used for centuries as a poison by hunters around the world. In strong enough doses, aconitine causes an accelerated heartbeat that can lead to cardiac arrest. The plants are utilized in both traditional Chinese and Indian medicines for their analgesic properties.
A spokesman for Yunnan Baiyao has claimed the plants' toxicity is neutralized by a process kept secret by proprietary law. The medicine occupies a gray area in Chinese law — especially concerning its organic components — due to a history longer than most mainland food and drug laws.
Developed in 1902 by herbalist Qu Huanzhang (曲焕章), Yunnan Baiyao has been classified by the Chinese government as a "national level confidential product". The ingredients of the medicine had been a closely guarded trade secret, much like the confidential recipe for Coca-Cola, until three years ago. In 2010 both Amazon and the United States Food and Drug Administration published a list of the eight purported active ingredients found in the medicine.
Wang's lawsuit asks that the medicinal powder be held to the same standards of disclosure as other over-the-counter medicines. Under Chinese law, ingredient lists and uses must be made available at the time a drug is purchased.
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