Failed suicide effort leaves drug company in trouble

October 09, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

BEIJING -- If a young couple swallow six bottles of sleeping pills but the only result is a bad morning-after stomachache, does that mean the pills were fakes?

A newspaper and TV station in northern Liaoning province reported the failure of a man and his wife to do away with themselves as further proof that in a China rampant with shoddy products, even sleeping pills can't be trusted.

"Fake medicine saves two lives," said the headline in the Liao Shen Evening News.

The couple had come from the countryside in March to Dalian at the southern tip of the province and had gambled away $700 in savings, a small fortune in China.

Distraught, they had only enough money left to buy six bottles of Super Happy Tranquility pills, whose advertising pledge promised that users would sleep like a baby swathed in cotton wool.

When a maid found the six empty bottles and the couple on the floor of their hotel room the next morning, both moaning with stomach pain, she called the police. Soon the saga of their survival became public.

Unfortunately, the story coincided with the 1994 National Medicines Fair in the provincial capital, Shenyang, where pill makers and potion brewers had hoped to sign fabulous new contracts, especially with for eign companies.

"The news was a disaster for the Zhu Ma Dian pharmaceutical factory, the makers of the Super Happy Tranquility pills. The company had expected to sell 10 million yuan [$1.14 million] worth of pills at the fair," the Beijing Youth Daily reported. "After the publicity, the company managed to sell just over a million [$114,000]."

So the state-owned factory, fearing the prospect of big layoffs, took the case to court. It provided as key evidence a laboratory test that concluded that Super Happy Tranquility sleeping pills did not contravene health regulations although they contained only a minute percentage of sleep-inducing drugs plus a lot of starch -- not a fake, in other words, but most unsuitable for suicides.

"Its main function is to make people sleep peacefully but not to kill them," the laboratory's report said. "A person weighing 104 pounds should take 56 bottles of the pills if he or she wants to commit suicide."

The Shenyang Court ordered the local paper and TV station to pay the pill company $75,000 in compensation for having defamed its product.

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