Friday, February 13, 2015

Beware of Watsons Malaysia

When A Bloomberg Writer Mentioned 'Watsons Malaysia' On Twitter, The Unthinkable Happened

It's one thing for in-store staff to display a blatant disregard for drug packaging standards, let alone when social media gets involved.
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Broken safety seals on over-the-counter medication are no joke. As the Chicago Tylenol murders in 1982 can attest, safety seals on medical packaging are essential to prevent its content from being tampered with and cause irreversible damage to consumers.

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  • In Chicago 1982, seven people died after consuming Tylenol-branded acetaminophen capsules that had been laced with potassium cyanide. Tampered-with bottles were found to have come from different factories, thus the culprit was believed to have acquired bottles of Tylenol from various supermarkets and drug stores over a period of several weeks, added the cyanide to the capsules, then returned to the stores to place the bottles back on the shelves. 

    The incidents led to reforms in the packaging of over-the-counter substances and to federal anti-tampering laws.

Unfortunately, a local Watsons branch did not seem to get the memo. A tweet from Bloomberg View writer Adam Minter alleged that bottles of Panadol were being sold with broken safety seals.

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Minter - who is currently based in Malaysia - brought the issue to light on Twitter late last month and even documented the series of events on his personal blog, 'Shanghai Scrap'

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  • In addition to his work with Bloomberg, Minter covers a range of topics for publications that have included The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and National Geographic. His first book, 'Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade' is a critically acclaimed and best-selling insider’s account of the hidden world of globalized recycling, from the US to China and points in between.

On 31 January, Minter purchased a bottle of Panadol from a local Watsons branch only to discover that the box's safety seal had been cut open and re-sealed. He opened the box anyway, only to discover that the bottle within is lacking its safety seal as well!

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  • Minter noted that this is a serious safety violation, as such conduct is in contrast with FDA (Food and Drug Administration) guidelines in the US. Packaging standards of over-the-counter medication outlined by the FDA is believed to have been adopted all over the world, including Malaysia. 

    He further explained that without a safety seal, the package is deemed to be unsafe and anybody could have altered the contents within.

Naturally, Minter returned to the store. Before bringing his bottle to the counter, he checked the other boxes of Panadol on the shelves and surprise, surprise! The seals have been broken too!

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  • When asked about the broken seals, the explanation offered was absolutely astounding - the boxes have been open so as to insert security tabs that will set off the store's alarms if they are not deactivated at the register. This in itself is pretty mind-boggling - instead of cutting open and inserting the security tabs into the box, why didn't the store's staff simple stick it on the outside of the box?

When Minter pointed out that doing so violated safety precautions that have been built into the packaging, he was offered a refund. BUT no apology was made, nor was there any indication that the store would take steps to respect the safety seals in the future.

  • "I pointed out that in doing so they were violating the seal (and the safety) that GSK (Panadol’s manufacturer) had built into the packaging. In response, I was offered a refund," Minter wrote in his blog post. 

    "No apologies, much less promises to respect the safety that GSK built into the packaging of its products. Just a refund, and an attitude that can be best described as 'now get the @#$% out of our store'."

Later that day, Minter brought the issue to the attention of Watsons Malaysia's Twitter account. Instead of apologising, the reply seemed to perpetuate that breaking open the seal is "fine" as long as the strips within the boxes are not affected

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  • Note that Minter previously stated that the item he had purchased is actually in the form of a bottle.

Minter replied with his discovery that the rest of the boxes have been opened with the bottles lacking safety seals, calling it a "shameful negligence"... only to be accused of "provoking" the issue by Watsons!

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The social media exchange took a turn for the worst when Twitter user @special_tasks pointed out that Watsons should be looking into the problem instead of critising Minter for bringing the issue to public attention

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In his blog post, Minter pointed out that the account is not verified and only has 90+ followers unlike its Facebook page. However, Watsons Malaysia did not respond to any of his enquiries in regards to the authenticity of the Twitter account in question.

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  • "I reached out to Watsons Malaysia via phone, email (a Watsons phone operators gave me the address of a press contact at the company), Facebook, and Twitter with the same question – is @watsonsmalaysia a company-run twitter account?" he wrote.

    "Presumably, if the account wasn’t affiliated with Watsons, the company would’ve been quick to tell me so. Instead, they’re ignoring me. That is, no response to any of my inquiries – precisely the kind of behavior I expect from somebody who doesn’t believe there’s any reason to explain anything (such as the stubborn druggists at … Watsons Malaysia)."

The ensuing conversation has since caught the attention of Malaysians on social media

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Watsons Malaysia may be bad on social media, but the real problem lies in the particular store's disregard for drug packaging standards and consumers' safety. If left unchecked, local consumers may be at risk of purchasing tampered-with medicine.

  • As Minter put it, "At least one branch of Asia’s largest “personal care” chain is altering the packaging of a widely used drug in a way that makes it unsafe to consumers. That they’ve chosen to ignore good faith efforts to remedy this failure is all the evidence anybody should need to decide that Watsons doesn’t much care about consumer safety."

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