What has long been suspected but never officially confirmed about China's most famous medicine came to light recently when drug maker Yunnan Baiyao (云南白药) changed the labeling of its products. For the first time, the toxin aconitum is now a listed ingredient in Baiyao's packaging inserts.
A news article published widely across Chinese state media over the weekend reports that the ingredient is used in the production of Yunnan Baiyao but its presence is so diluted that it is harmless to humans when ingested. The discloser of the use of aconitum comes as a result of labeling rules put into place by the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) at the end of 2013. Thousands of Traditional Chinese Medicine products, all containing at least one of 28 different poisonous ingredients, were also affected by the new regulations.
The full ingredients list for Yunnan Baiyao had been a closely guarded secret until relatively recently and had been declared a "national level confidential product" by Beijing. Simply listing aconitum on its packaging may save the company future headaches once caused by the classified nature of the production of its line of medicines.
Said to have been invented in Yunnan in 1902 by an itinerant herb collector from Jiangchuan County named Qu Huanzhang (曲焕章), Yunnan Baiyao was originally used as a blood coagulant. It is now available in pill and powder forms but has also been added to a full range of goods including skin treatments, shampoos and, most recently, a very popular medicinal toothpaste.
The labeling requirements issued by SFDA may have stemmed from a series of negative public relations events surrounding Yunnan Baiyao that temporarily tarnished the company's image. In early 2013, officials in Sichuan province banned the sale of Baiyao powders and pills over faulty and defective wrappers that led to water contamination. In addition to rendering the medicine ineffective, the tested products were found to be tainted with mold.
The following month, Hong Kong and Macau also temporarily outlawed Yunnan Baiyao sales. The ban was put into place when tests showed the medicine contained an unidentified alkaloid that could be poisonous — presumably aconitum. Sales were allowed to resume in November 2013 after the company properly registered and explained the presence of the chemical in question.
Three months later, the drug maker was sued in a Liaoning court by a consumer rights advocate named Wang Hai (王海). His case was largely symbolic and demanded the active ingredients of the medicine, of which he claimed aconitum was one, must be listed on packaging inserts. Wang also sought damages totaling 11.5 yuan (US$1.85) — the price he paid for one packet of the medicine.
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