Most of these pills are illegal in most countries because the ingredients, manufactured in unregulated laboratories in China and India, could cause serious illness or death.
‘In the spring, women will go online and buy a couple of months’ worth of tablets which they think will help them fit into their bikini,’ explains Danny Lee-Frost, head of enforcement operations at the Medicine and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
‘But buy from websites like these and you don’t know what you are getting — these pills can cause strokes and heart attacks. They are dangerous.
‘You also have no idea where this stuff is being manufactured or stored, and you cannot guarantee how much active ingredient each pill contains. In the past, we have raided places where different chemicals were being mixed up in cement mixers, with the stuff on the floor being swept up and shovelled back in. They just don’t care.’
Examples of these pills are Slimex 15 and Slim Trim which contain sibutramine, a weight-loss drug previously available on prescription as Reductil. In October 2010 Reductil was withdrawn from the market and is now a controlled substance.
Action was taken after some of those taking sibutramine reported raised blood pressure and pulse rate amongst other things.
Lilla Goatcher, 28, was prescribed slimming pills twice and had extreme reactions
Before it was banned in Britain, Lilla Goatcher, 28, was among those to be prescribed Reductil.
‘For the first couple of weeks it wasn’t too bad — a racing heart as if I had drunk far too much coffee,’ says Lilla, who is now married and works in digital marketing. ‘But then I started not to be able to sleep and would be up all night. That was followed by really excruciating stomach ache and pains in my chest which in the end got so bad I decided to stop taking the pills.’
Lilla was once again prescribed a lower dosage of the pills shortly before they were banned in 2010. ‘I started having heart palpitations and once again couldn’t get to sleep,’ she says.
‘I couldn’t concentrate and started to feel terribly light-headed. The reaction was still quite extreme.’
Two years ago, an 18-year-old girl from Dublin who bought slimming pills online containing sibutramine developed ischaemic colitis, a severe swelling of blood vessels supplying the intestines. It resulted in her having her colon surgically removed.
According to MHRA, some of the ‘herbal’ and traditional Chinese slimming medicines contain dangerous levels of heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead. They have issued warnings about three products found to contain undeclared prescription-only ingredients.
Other herbal medicines have been found to contain the plant extract ephedra, which is classed as a prescription-only medicine in the UK because of the serious side-effects like insomnia, psychosis and heart palpitations.
31-year-old dance teacher Samantha Ntritsou, from the West Midlands, bought slimming pills from eBay. Although she was a size 12 and weighed 10st, she was keen to lose weight around her stomach.
‘I paid £90 for three months’ supply,’ she says. ‘It was a lot of money but I thought it would be well worth it. When they arrived in the post I couldn’t wait to get started.’ But shortly after beginning the course, Samantha began to notice some symptoms…
‘I was full of excess energy,’ she says. ‘I began to feel constantly agitated, too, I kept snapping at my family and I couldn’t sleep.’
Samantha also started to experience feelings of paranoia.
‘At the hospital I totally freaked out,’ she says. ‘I was screaming and running around the wards where patients were sleeping.’
Samantha was eventually sectioned to a psychiatric ward where she was given sleeping pills and mood stabilisers.
It is quite scary given the scale of the trade in these drugs over the internet and the lengths people are prepared to go to lose a few kilos.