Dangerous pharmaceuticals marketed as supplements
How Chinese maker of weight-loss capsules ended up in U.S. prison
Jessica Hardy, a gold medalist in the London Games, was barred from the 2008 Olympics for taking a tainted supplement. (Al Bello, Getty Images)
His 2 Day Diet, he said, was a copy of a product with the same name in Japan. His Alli was made to look exactly like GlaxoSmithKline's moneymaker even though it contained the wrong active ingredient. Real Alli contains the chemical orlistat, not sibutramine.
Zhou told the agents he wanted to make lots of money, but not so much that he drew the attention of the pharmaceutical company that makes Alli.
"I do not want these products to bring me any trouble, you know," he said. He worried about being sued or being thrown in jail, he told the agents.
His operation was based in Kunming, he told the agents, the large city in southwest China where he was born. Zhou said he had a factory that could make thousands of boxes of 30 types of weight-loss products per day.
He told the agents he had 20 employees, each making $300 a month, and that he sold his product through at least two websites. Zhou said he bought his bottles from one company, empty capsules from another and the sibutramine from yet another.
Zhou's network included a former customer in Plano, Texas, who was paid $1,000 a month to handle his banking at U.S. banks and to receive shipments, which she would then send out to customers. Other distributors included a septuagenarian in Pennsylvania who allegedly sold Zhou's counterfeit Alli on eBay.
To the agents, Zhou fretted aloud about being caught and tossed in jail — but he also indicated he believed what he was doing was commonplace.
"All company do the illegal thing, do you understand?" he was recorded saying. "For example, they produce the capsule no day time, evening they will produce."
His pills made their way to folks looking to lose weight naturally or perhaps hoping to save money on Alli, which retails for more than $60 for a box of 120 capsules.
Elizabeth Miller, acting director of FDA's Division of Non-Prescription Drugs and Health Fraud, said people often turn to supplements after physicians tell them that pharmaceutical solutions would be dangerous because of underlying health problems or other drugs they are taking.
In other words, the very people seeking the supplements often are the ones at highest risk if the products turn out to be laced with hidden chemicals.
One of Zhou's victims was a California emergency room doctor who testified that he bought some of Zhou's Alli on eBay for about half the retail price. Soon after he started taking it, he began to feel ill, he said.
"Eventually over the course of three or four days I became confused, had an insatiable thirst," he testified. "I had headaches and just a general confusion. I would forget where I was at times."
A CT scan showed that he had a stroke, he said, and he eventually left his job. During Zhou's sentencing in June 2011, U.S. District Judge Philip Brimmer ordered Zhou to pay the doctor $87,000 in lost wages and restitution. He also ordered Zhou to pay GlaxoSmithKline more than $400,000.
At the sentencing, Brimmer admonished Zhou for hiding sibutramine in capsules he sold as supplements, which was estimated to have earned him more than $200,000.
"When you know what these products can do to the public, but nonetheless sell them to the public and anticipate that innocent people will be ingesting them, you deserve the top of the guideline range," he said.
Brimmer sentenced Zhou to 87 months in federal prison. Zhou is appealing his sentence; oral arguments are set for September.