Bang for your baht?

Bang for your baht?

Virility pills are taking off under the guise of dietary supplements, but experts are questioning their usefulness and safety

For a hardworking man like Korn, his main focus is trying to maintain a balance between his work and personal life while keeping everyone around him happy.

“What can be more important in life than performing well at work and being a superman when I’m with my wife?” said Korn, 39, who works as a manager in the private sector supervising hundreds of people.

He spends most of his day at work and has little time left to take care of himself or exercise. Despite this, his general health is good with the exception of high blood pressure and cholesterol. But there is one embarrassing health issue he is facing which he is too shy to talk to his doctor about.

 “I am an employee of the year at work, but I fail when it comes to bedroom stuff at home,” Korn admitted. He suffers from erectile dysfunction but is too ashamed to visit the doctor. Instead of getting professional help, Korn went online and found what he believes is a perfect and shame-free solution.

He purchased men’s health food supplements, or “virility pills”, from a website proclaiming they can solve the problems of men like him. “I’ve been taking the tablets for two months and they seem to work,” he said proudly.

Korn is part of a growing number of men turning to virility pills — often marketed as dietary supplements — to solve sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation. But concerns have been raised by health experts over the efficacy of the pills, their ingredients and breaches of advertising laws laid down by the food and drug watchdog.

FATHER’S LITTLE HELPER

“Stronger, harder and last longer,” the virility pill advertising boasts to the legions of desperate men crippled by flagging hope. Korn bought the message, along with a one-month supply to try.

He was promised by the website the virility pills are “100% natural”, so he phoned the advertised number.

“I called the call centre and talked to them about the product to make sure that it’s right for me. Once I felt safe with it, I ordered one bottle worth 2,200 baht,” Korn explained.

Within an hour of the phone call, a delivery man arrived at his office on a motorcycle and handed over a brown envelope with a bottle containing 30 tablets of the “enhancement supplemental”. Korn paid the money, opened the envelope and read the instructions before popping his first pill.

“I could see a big difference within a week of taking the tablets,” Korn said. “I feel much better about myself and my wife is much happier too.”

But not all customers are as impressed. A 28 year old who ordered a similar product after seeing them advertised online said he couldn’t see a huge improvement in his performance. “All it does is help boost my self-confidence,”  said the young man who asked to remain anonymous.

EASY APPROVAL

Niyada Kietying-angsulee, programme manager for the Drug System Monitoring Mechanism Development Centre, said the reason food supplements are popular and readily available is because they are easily approved.

The Food and Drug Administration specifies that all food and drugs must be registered before they are put on sale. Food is less complicated to register than a drug and many types don’t require registration. However, “supplemental foods” cannot advertise their properties and health benefits. All advertising is subject to approval by the FDA.

“We found that there are many supplemental foods, herbal drinks and fruit juices breaking the law in terms of adding the health benefits and properties to sell their products,” Dr Niyada said. “One form of media that spreads these messages easily is websites.”

Dr Niyada said there were also concerns that dangerous products were added to supplemental foods sold in Thailand. Sibutramine, a weight suppressant linked to heart attacks and banned in many countries, had been found in diet pills, while sildenafil, the generic name for Viagra, had been detected in food supplements. Dr Niyada warned that sildenafil needed to be safely prescribed by a doctor for individual patients.

Her greatest concerns, however, were herbal drinks and traditional Thai medicine, which don’t need to be registered. Dr Niyada found many of the products added extra ingredients such as female hormones and steroids.

Another problem was the low penalties for the producers of supplemental products found to have extra substances.    

“The Thai FDA should seriously enforce the law in order to control food and drugs,” she said. “We have so many people reporting products in upcountry areas using fake FDA registration numbers. We need to ensure the safety of people.”

Patchara Klaewkla from the Foundation for Consumers said products showing an FDA registration number don’t guarantee safety.

“For me, the registration number only means that you don’t die immediately after you take it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that the products are safe or you are not going to die if you take it on a long-term basis.”  

MEDIA CONTROL 

While the advertising of supplemental foods needs FDA approval, the internet is difficult to supervise compared to other media.

The Foundation for Consumers is working with the Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission to try and find lawbreakers.

Mr Patchara said it’s a major challenge to control all drug and food products as many sellers take advantage of weak law enforcement and a lack of monitoring.

“We are now working on radio and television advertising content, especially cable and satellite TV,” Mr Patchara said. “The food and drug advertising on TV has become a big problem as we have so many cable and satellite TV channels.”

Mr Patchara found supplemental food products that advertise on television usually exaggerate their qualities.

In its regulations, the FDA specifically mentions that food products have no properties to “heal, cure or treat people suffering from illness”, unlike drugs.

“It is easier to control the content on TV and radio since the NBTC can revoke their licence to broadcast,” he said. “But internet adverting is a lot more difficult to control. If we close down their website, they can open another page the following day.”

Many TV shows circumvent the rules by inviting a representative of the food products to promote them during an interview, which doesn’t need any approval.

SEX SELLS 

The satellite and cable TV channel advertisements for male virility products always use attractive women as presenters who praise men with a strong sex drive.

“ ‘Harder, bigger and stronger’ are definitely not allowed in the adverts as supplemental food products have no drug properties,” said Mr Patchara. “They can easily be investigated.

“All of the advertising for virility pills that we see online or on TV is illegal. It’s possible that when these products are registered, they use different labels to put on the product. The FDA won’t approve it if they see what they mention in the advertising.”

Mr Patchara monitored the advertising on free-to-air TV channels and found that most of the adverts are for diet products. The content is hidden within the regular TV programming during a celebrity interview. Most of the questionable advertising on cable and satellite TV relates to male virility products.

“From 18 advertisements I screened in one day, I found 10 for men’s sexual enchantment products,” he said. “What scares me the most is many of them are not legally registered. I know that some of these products have had their licence revoked, but they just put their products on TV for sale anyway.”

The Foundation for Consumers analysed the virility tablets and found that many had mixed sildenafil with other ingredients.

“Just keep in mind that there is no food that can give you back your virility if you are not taking care of yourself and working on it with a professional,” Mr Patchara said.     

BUNNY BOUNCE

Chatmongkol Khemapirat is chairman and chief casting officer for Bunny Ventures, the company which owns the famous Playboy Thailand magazine. It also markets what it calls a dietary supplement product for men which has markedly improved the company’s financial bottom line. The company also sells skin whitening and dietary pills. Mr Chatmongkol describes all three as herbal products.

Last year the three products added 30% to the company’s revenue, the majority from the male dietary supplement which is sold online. A sample box of the male dietary supplement lists three ingredients: cordyceps sinensis powder (a Chinese mushroom extract used in traditional medicine), ginseng powder and kaempferia parviflora powder (Thai ginseng which some consider a natural aphrodisiac).

The box makes no claim as to the purpose of the pills other than to say it is a “tonight formula” and should be taken with warm water “on an empty stomach one hour in advance”.

On the product’s website the claims are far more explicit. “If you are not confident with yourself, your penis is small, eat just one tablet daily, the blood circulation will run normally and boost the pumping of stored blood. As a result, the penis will become larger and stronger, permanently, without shrinking after use. It will be tough, durable and large. It will make it last slower without any side effect.”

The dietary supplement is also marketed via the Playboy models’ social media accounts, whose followers can number in the millions.

Mr Chatmongkol said sex is part of the Playboy lifestyle, which is why the pills are selling well.

He said the company had sold male supplemental products before but the current one was more popular because of its “premium quality Chinese and Thai herbs”.

Mr Chatmongkol said Bunny Ventures monitor their online advertising to make sure that they don’t break the advertising laws under the Food Act. He said while they used Playboy bunnies to advertise the product they avoided overstatement in the way some other companies do.

Mr Chatmongkol said the trend for male supplemental food has changed a lot. Initially, their main target market was men aged over 40 with health problems. It then shifted to men aged 30 and above who were overweight and don’t have enough time to take care of themselves. In the past year, the trend has moved to men in their twenties who are still healthy but use the product to enhance their ability in bed.

“It seems to change the role from being a problem solver to being a confidence builder for men,” Mr Chatmongkol said.

“We mention on the website clearly the effects of the product. Just like food that we take in our body, it has side effects and it remains in our body. It does work, but I don’t recommend anyone take it on a daily basis long-term. You should let your body rest from any supplemental food from time to time.”

He said Bunny Ventures was in the process of developing a similar dietary supplement for women.

THE BIG ‘O’

Omsin Bulpakdi, better known as Dr O, is a well-known men’s health doctor who operates three clinics in Bangkok called Family and Men’s Health. The first opened in 1995. He is also a famous newspaper columnist and answers sex-related questions from readers.

Dr Omsin said as sex is such an important part of people’s lives men will usually do anything to improve their sex drive. Many of Dr Omsin’s patients are older men who cannot perform in the bedroom as they once did. Some tell him their lives aren’t worth living without sex.

From his experience, Dr Omsin said the average decline in men’s sexual performance is usually relative to their age. For instance, a man at the age of 40 has a 40% chance of losing his sex drive and the odds against him rise as he ages.

Other factors such as diet, accidents, alcohol consumption, cancer, high cholesterol and diabetes increase the likelihood of a man losing his sex drive to 70-80%. Obesity and lack of exercise are also contributing factors.

One thing Dr Omsin is certain about is that supplemental foods can’t enhance male sexual performance.

“It’s a lie,” he said. “There is no pill that can strengthen that muscle. If you want it to be strong, you have to work on it. There is no magic pill that can help with that problem.”

Dr Omsin said while many patients are too shy to talk to a doctor about their sexual health, many doctors are also unwilling to hear about the problems. He said this is probably why patients buy supplemental foods without consulting doctors.

“Don’t self-medicate because it can be dangerous,” he warned.

Supplemental income: Bunny Ventures chairman Chatmongkol Khemapirat with Bunny Pookky at the Playboy Thailand offices. Playboy Bunnies have been used to promote the company’s pills.

Age has not wearied them: Older men hoping to revitalise their performance in the bedroom are turning to supplements sold online over medical help.

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