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Drugmakers Battle in Weight-control
As affluence grows, Chinese waistlines also are expanding, and the big drugmakers are moving to cash in on an increasing appetite for weight-control products.

A market long dominated by rhubarb-based laxatives and other traditional medicines is now facing strong challenges from Western formulations.

Infighting between the two leader competitors is heating up as they each spend millions of yuan on marketing campaigns. One has even taken the other to court over a controversial Internet posting and other material.

What prompted all the interest by diet-drug makers are figures like these: Nearly 13 percent of Shanghai's adults are obese, and the rate is growing by 1 percentage point a year, according to a study by Fudan University.

Nationwide, the number of over-weight people is estimated at 70 million as China's increasing personal wealth leads its citizens toward high-calorie fast foods, soft drinks and snacks.

Drugmakers have lost no time in cashing in.

Second-quarter sales of weight-loss products in Shanghai's drugstores and supermarkets ballooned 58 percent to 28.6 million yuan (US$3.4 million) from a year earlier, while sales in Beijing jumped by 88 percent to 21.4 million yuan, according to a recent market survey by United Research China.

Throughout the mainland, annual sales of weight-control substances are estimated at 1 billion yuan, with an annual growth rate of 20 percent.

Battling for supremacy in this market are the drugs Xenical, made by Switzerland-based F. Hoffmann La-Roche, and Qumei, produced by Chongqing's Taiji Group.

Both use ingredients that require prescriptions in the West, but the drugs can be obtained without doctors' orders in China.

Xenical, introduced in China in February, works on the digestive system by reducing the absorption of fat. Its maker claims it is the only diet drug that doesn't affect the central nervous system and thus has fewer side effects than the others.

Qumei was launched in July 2000 and was China's first approved member of the sibutramine group of drugs, a formulation used in the West that suppresses appetite and causes a feeling of fullness by affecting the central nervous system.

In fact, it was that difference that caused Taiji to file a lawsuit against Roche in July. The suit alleged that Roche tarnished Taiji's reputation by claiming on its Website and in its brochures that Qumei causes higher blood pressure.

In the second quarter of the year, Qumei's makers beat the Xenical folk in domestic advertising spending, 34 million yuan to 9.7 million yuan, with remarkable results for both.

"Sales of Xenical in China are growing between 30 to 50 percent monthly, and we are targeting US$12 million in total this year," said Leon Wang, Xenical's brand manager, declining to provide the current figure.

Qumei has generated 300 million yuan in sales so far, according to Li Shuwen, the drug's marketing manager.

In addition to the advertising, both companies are marketing their products through hospital affiliations.

Roche is working with 70 institutions across the country to set up weight- reduction clinics. Patients visit the clinics two to three days a week for diet and exercise programs that include weight and body-mass checks - and of course Xenical.

"We also teamed up with hospitals to set up body fitness centers," said Qumei's Li.

Who's winning the competition so far?

Xenical appears to be ahead in the hospital market, holding an 86 percent share while Qumei has the rest, according to IMS Health Inc.

According to a United Research China survey of retail store sales, Xenical is stronger in Shanghai, with 12.4 percent share of the entire weight-loss market, while Qumei has 4.6 percent. In Beijing, however, Qumei holds a dominating 36 percent to its competitor's 10.1 percent.

(Eastday.com 09/06/2001)

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