Health Canada flags ‘serious’ risks of unauthorized sexual enhancement products

Dozens of pills claiming to help boost your sex game have been taken off the market across Canada over the past year, raising concerns about the health risks of using unauthorized products that keep making their way onto shelves.

Between March and December 2023, Health Canada seized 206 unauthorized sexual enhancement products from stores in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia, according to a public advisory that was updated on Dec. 27.

Over the years, Health Canada has issued multiple advisories, alerting Canadians about such products that may pose “serious health risks.”

The drugs flagged by the agency are labelled to contain or have been tested and found to contain dangerous ingredients.

Most of the recent pills that have been seized in the last month contained prescription drugs, such as tadalafil, sildenafil, levodopa, prasterone and yohimbe, that should only be used under the supervision of a health-care provider.

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Sildenafil is sold under the brand name Viagra (likewise for tadalafil and the brand name Cialis) that is prescribed to men for erectile dysfunction.

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It’s a “very opportunistic” market that draws on younger men especially responding to the idea that they can have performance enhancing drugs with the promise of sexual prowess, erectility and virility, said John Oliffe, professor and Canadian research chair in men’s health promotion at the University of British Columbia.

He said the way these products are packaged appeals to some men’s sense of making them somehow feel “more attractive” and “more competitive.”

“It’s one of those things that sometimes guys will buy into because they can get them without a prescription or a consultation,” Oliffe told Global News in an interview.

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Global News reached out to Health Canada for further information about how these unauthorized products are making it onto the market and what is being done to clamp down on sales and promotion of them, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

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What are the health risks?

According to Health Canada, if a health product is unauthorized it means it has not been assessed for safety, effectiveness and quality by the agency.

Prescription drugs that are commonly found in unauthorized sexual enhancement products can cause a series of adverse health outcomes.

These include dizziness, headache, indigestion, hearing loss, facial flushing and abnormal vision — all associated with sildenafil and tadalafil, according to Health Canada.

Those with underlying heart problems are also at an increased risk of high blood pressure, stroke, chest pain and heart attack from taking these drugs.

“Every drug that we take has an interaction with other drugs and also might be contraindicated for pathologies that we might be carrying,” Oliffe said.

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Yohimbine, which is derived from the bark extract yohimbe, can cause nausea, tremors, anxiety, dizziness, headache, sleep disorders and increased blood pressure and heart rate.

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This should not be used by pregnant and breastfeeding women or those who have liver, heart, or kidney disease, Health Canada says.

“When you buy an unauthorized sexual enhancement product there is no guarantee that it contains what it says it does, nor is there a guarantee that its ingredients are safe,” the agency said on its website.

“Although the product could be doing what it says it will, you could be harming your body unknowingly.”

How to know which pills are safe

Several sexual enhancement products, such as Viagra, have been authorized in Canada and can be taken with a prescription.

Some pockets of erectile dysfunction medications can also be bought online, but Oliffe said for the average person it’s not possible to tell which ones are safe, so he advises to “err on the side of caution” and consult a doctor before taking such drugs.

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“We really need strong guidance from someone who understands the pharmacology of this because it’s quite complex,” Oliffe said.

“If it’s performativity and erectile dysfunction they’re trying to address, I think the best route to do that is to is to talk to a physician,” he added.

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To check if a product is authorized for sale, Health Canada advises looking for one of three identifiers: an eight-digit drug identification number, a natural product number (NPN) or a homeopathic drug number (DIN-HM).

The product label should also include all medicinal ingredients, recommended use and dose as well as any health warnings.

Health Canada also has a searchable database for authorized drug products if you want to make sure what you’re taking is safe to use.

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