CHOICE # 301

15 November 2001
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Test uncovers non-disclosure and inconsistencyin labelling of detoxifying and slimming products

The Consumer Council has called on the Government to impose comprehensive labelling requirements in the proposed subsidiary legislation of the Chinese Medicine Ordinance.

A principal aim of the Ordinance is to provide for the registration of proprietary Chinese medicines.

The call was made in the light of a Council's test on detoxifying and slimming products which has uncovered a host of problems associated with the labelling of these products.

The test has detected anthraquinone stimulant laxatives in 22 formulae of detoxifying and slimming products, ranging from 0.0007% to 1.597%.

However, the presence of herbs containing anthraquinones in 4 of the formulae was not disclosed on the label.

Also missing in many of these formulae was the appropriate warning statement on the use of such products. Some even claimed that their products were free of any adverse side-effects at all.

Another problem commonly found in the labelling of these products concerned inconsistency, resulting in great confusion to the consumers.

For instance, the Chinese and English lists of ingredients were different and so were the ingredient lists on the box and the insert. In one case, even the recommended dosage in Chinese and English was not identical. (The discrepancy has since been rectified). Further, the names of the herbs and their translations were not standardized.

The test which included a total of 36 models containing 42 formulae, was conducted with the assistance of the Institute of Chinese Medicine of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

In the test, anthraquinone stimulant laxatives were identified in 22 of the formulae. Anthraquinones in these products may be present in herbs such as rhubarb, aloe, senna, cascara, cassia and Chinesecornbind.

Though herbs containing anthraquinones are used often for their value in anti-microbial, wound healing, laxative and lowering blood pressure, they should be used with due caution.

The German Commission E Monograph has recommended that SINGLE herb products containing anthraquinones should not be used without medical supervision for over one to two weeks.

The samples in this test are mainly Chinese formulations using combination mixtures of herbs which have the effect of harmonising or counteracting with each other in order to enhance the therapeutic value and to minimise toxicity and side-effects.

It is the responsibility of the manufacturers to provide proof for the substantiation of their claims to product efficacy and safety.

Besides the presence of anthraquinones, the samples were also tested to investigate if they may contain heavy metals (cadmium, arsenic, lead and mercury) and western medicines (ephedrine, fenfluramine and amfepramone). A clean bill of health was given to the products in these regards.

On the basis of the test findings, the Consumer Council has referred some of the cases to the Department of the Health for investigation for possible breaches of the Undesirable Medical Advertisements Ordinance and the Pharmacy and Poisons Ordinance. Appropriate action was taken subsequently by the Department.

First ever test results of bio-degradable lunch boxes in waste reduction

The Consumer Council has unveiled the results on the degradability of disposable lunch boxes with degradable claims.

Disposable plastic foam lunch boxes pose a serious environmental concern these days. It is estimated that by next year, the number of lunch boxes to be consumed by primary school pupils alone could reach a staggering 280,000 pieces a day.

A new generation of lunch boxes with degradable claim has since made their way into the market.

But the real issue is to what extent does degradability take place, to minimize the colossal quantity of waste created by the use and disposal of lunch boxes?

The Council's test is the first of its kind in Hong Kong based on the Testing Guideline on the Degradability and Food Safety of Containers and Bags issued by the Environmental Protection Department in December last year.

The results are split almost 50-50. Out of the 7 models, 3 were found to live up to their claim of degradability - to the extent of over 60% of the products degraded after a period of 180 days.

The remaining 4 samples were found to have a degradability of only 30 to 46%, failing to meet the passing criteria for biodegradability in accordance with the Testing Guideline.

The one plastic foam sample, included in the test as reference, had the lowest degradability of all.

In addition, the samples were tested for food safety and physical performance.

For food safety, all samples were found to satisfy the passing criteria for pesticide residues, coliform bacteria, moulds and yeasts, and heavy metals. But when the samples were filled with 3 kinds of food simulants - distilled water, 15% ethanol and 3% acetic acid - 3 samples could not satisfy the passing criteria in the overall migration test.

For physical performance, 2 samples were found to have leakage when filled with hot water, and 6 when filled with hot oil. The remaining samples were able to satisfy the passing criteria of static loading, low temperature and acid resistance tests.

In conclusion, the test demonstrated beyond doubt that food containers with degradable claims do degrade faster than the foam type.

Though more costly - priced from 35 cents to $1.1 each which is one to five times higher than the plastic foam lunch boxes of about 22 cents each - using degradable lunch boxes to replace foam containers will go a long way to help stop the rapid increase in waste volume in landfills.

Better still, consumers are urged to consider using reusable food containers. But if disposable containers must be used then degradable containers are the preferred option to the plastic foam lunch boxes.

The Consumer Council is hopeful that the test results will help manufacturers to bring improvement in the quality of these relatively new developed products, and encourage consumers to actively help waste reduction.

With economies of scale brought on by higher demand, it is hoped that the price of degradable lunch boxes will become lower.

Insufficient chargeback disclosures and instructions to consumers by payment card issuers

A Consumer Council survey has recommended payment card issuers to increase the level of transparency in the disclosure of policies related to chargebacks protection for consumers.

Chargebacks is a term broadly used to encompass consumer rights to remove transactions from accounts for a variety of reasons, such as lost or stolen cards, billing errors, and non-conforming or non-delivery of goods and services.

But chargebacks are only an effective tool for consumers if they are informed about their rights and know how and when to trigger the dispute process.

The survey notes that the level of consumer protection through chargebacks has come a long way since the Council's study on the issue in 1996.

For instance, the liability on loss of payment cards is now capped at $500 or less. 4 of the 23 issuers, surveyed by the Council last month, have even waived such liability. In 1996, most issuers would have required cardholders to bear all losses before the loss was reported.

In the case of disputed items on billing statements, all 23 issuers surveyed have allowed a 60-day period for cardholders to lodge objection, instead of 14 days as was generally the case before.

While card issuers have generally advised cardholders to carefully examine their monthly statements and to report any unauthorised transactions, card companies have been less than completely transparent in providing clear notice that consumers have the right to withhold payment of disputed transactions under the Code of Banking Practice issued by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority.

Due to insufficient clear chargeback disclosures and instructions, consumers often do not completely understand their rights in dealing with disputing transactions.

The Consumer Council reminds cardholders their chargeback rights as outlined in the Code of Banking Practice :

  • Consumers have the right to withhold or reverse payment of disputing transactions which they have not purchased or signed for.
  • The burden of proof of such disputes should rest with the card company or issuing bank.

But cardholders are advised that though they would not be required to pay any finance or interest charge while the dispute is being processed, card issuers have the right to reimpose such charges if the dispute later proved to be unjustified.

Card issuers are encouraged to publicise clearly such chargeback mechanisms to enhance consumer confidence in the industry, as well as to take an active part in assisting consumers to resolve disputes between cardholders and merchants.

Some card issuers, according to the survey, have indicated they would do their best to assist cardholders in dispute with merchants. It is hoped that more issuers will follow suit.

Test on TV sets shows up differences in picture/sound quality, and power consumption

Television sets these days are competitively priced with the emergence of new manufacturers and brands.

Take the case of a 29 inch multi-system Nicam model the price of which could span from about $4,000 to nearly $13,000.

To assist consumers in their choice, the Consumer Council has tested 12 models from 10 brands of TV sets of this type.

The test compared and rated their performance for reception sensitivity, picture and sound quality, ease of use, power consumption, and electrical safety.

While no clear correlation between price and performance could be established, the test does produce considerable differences in the evaluation in respect of picture and sound quality. Some performed well while others were less than satisfactory.

For the energy and environmentally conscious, the test revealed significant variations in the power consumption, at standby mode, of the samples, ranging from 0.57 watt up to 8.1 watts.

It shows that some samples are unnecessarily consuming more electricity than they should be, wasting energy and environmentally undesirable in the process.