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Sunday, July 28, 2002


Look at her, she's dying to lose some weight

If there is still any question whether China has finally joined the so-called industrialized world, the current diet-aid scandal should put it to rest. Only an industrialized nation with a population that eats enough food on a daily basis to worry about extra kilos can support an industry dedicated to getting rid of those kilos.

"Dieting," to use the teeth-gratingly inappropriate but nevertheless globally accepted term for "trying to lose weight," is a concept that now cuts across all cultures, or, at least, all cultures that have access to satellite dishes and produce local editions of Cosmopolitan and Premiere. If China has the Asian edge in the diet industry, it isn't because of its rocket-fueled GDP, but because of the centuries-old tradition of Chinese medicine.

Of course, the Japanese women who bought the diet treatments that are being linked to deaths from liver failure did not do so mainly because the treatment was Chinese. They bought it because it was yet another method that was rumored to work. But the China angle certainly didn't hurt.

Neither did the fact that the pills were easy to obtain. Because they were kanpo (Chinese medicine), they could be classified not as drugs (yakuhin), which require testing and approval, but as health food (kenko shokuhin), a term that is a bit broader than the one usually used in the West. Health foods in Japan are either dietary supplements or products consumed to "maintain" a certain condition, such as normal blood pressure.

Diet aids, by their definition, are neither, no matter how "natural" their active ingredients are purported to be. The health ministry has seemingly discovered that the two brands of Chinese diet treatments under investigation contain an appetite suppressant that is not approved for sale in Japan. This ingredient is not listed on the package, which seems to let the government off the hook, but in any case, the authorities have vowed to be more vigilant in preventing "the import and sale of products that contain harmful ingredients."

If this sounds like a classic case of locking the stable door after the horses have bolted and moved to Miami, it probably can't be helped, since there is a huge difference between what the government accepts as health-related consumer products and what the public recognizes as the same.

Though truth-in-advertising laws exist in Japan, their interpretation seems wildly flexible. As an American who made annual visits as a child to the most sadistic dentist on the eastern seaboard, I can't prevent my jaw from dropping whenever I see that commercial for the Japanese toothpaste which claims it can rebuild lost tooth enamel. Since I still have a full head of hair, I don't much worry about the boasts of the hair-restoring tonics I see during prime time, but I sure feel sorry for the bald guys who are browbeaten into believing them.

Use of the word "diet" seems to allow access to a universe with its own separate set of physical laws, which is why any company can claim that its "diet" product will help you not only keep track of those calories, but actually lose weight. I've never been entirely comfortable with the fact that the Coca-Cola Company can get away with calling their low-calorie beverage Diet Coke, but I've accepted it.

What I can't accept is a beer called "diet." Of course, the alcoholic beverage which carries that name is not technically "beer" (it's happoshu), but the idea that the sudsy brew could actually be a weight-reduction aid goes beyond deceitful to the bizarre.

In the latest TV campaign for the stuff, the prime minister's son (providing an added subtext for the word "diet") assures an already willowy young thing that she can still enjoy a beer-sodden summer and not worry about that waistline, which is already showing disturbing signs of breakout.

The absurdity of such a marketing scheme reflects a willingness to exploit and even inflate consumer anxieties. Truth-in-advertising rules are supposed to prevent this kind of exploitation, but the industry has become so brazen that the public (not to mention the authorities) now accept such cynicism as the norm.

Chinese medicine occupies such a strong position in Japan that the current boom in canned Chinese teas is at least partially related to their perceived health benefits. Pu-er tea has always been touted as a lipid buster, and senna tea is a well-known laxative. The Chinese manufacturers of those two allegedly deadly diet treatments certainly benefited from the belief that their products were "kanpo."

Which means the health ministry has its work cut out in terms of checking demand. The diet craze has gotten so out of hand that health considerations seem beside the point. I could swear that the number of flyers in my daily newspapers for over-the-counter diet aids has doubled since this Chinese diet treatment controversy broke.

In a feature in the Asahi Shimbun, several women who took the Chinese diet aids described the pain and suffering they went through after using them. But they also lost weight and seemed quite pleased with the fact.

Those things might kill you, but at least they do what they advertise.

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