Counterfeit Drugs are a Global Problem

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  • 02/19/2006

While some in the US still don’t believe that counterfeit prescription drugs are a real problem (“Show me the dead Canadians!”) Europe is taking it dead serious.

On Wednesday, the Center for Medicines in the Public Interest (home to this blog) and the Brussels-based Centre for the New Europe co-sponsored a conference titled, “A False Sense of Security — The Growing Threat of Counterfeit Prescription Products.”

Shortly I will post all of the presentations from that event. A book will follow.

The next day (last Thursday) the World Health Organisation and the international pharmaceutical industry launched a global taskforce aimed at stemming “the growing epidemic” of counterfeit drugs that has become a magnet for organized crime.

Here’s what the Financial Times wrote on the subject …

On some estimates, fake drugs account for more than 10 per cent of the medicines market worldwide, worth nearly 40bn US dollars (34bn euros, 23bn pounds) a year. But in developing countries that proportion is more like 25 per cent and in some countries it may be as high as 50 per cent.

Howard Zucker, WHO’s top official on pharmaceuticals, said: “People donç©° die from carrying a fake handbag or wearing a fake t-shirt. They can die from taking a counterfeit medicine.”

The taskforce will focus on strengthening national laws and enforcement, raising awareness by consumers and health professionals, improving international co-operation and developing “innovative technology solutions” including electronic tagging to track fakes.

However, WHO is no longer pressing for work to start on an international treaty to tackle counterfeit medicines, which critics feared could simply serve as an excuse for delay and inaction.

“Clearly what’s needed here is action and we don’t need a convention to take some action,” said Harvey Bale, director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), which is co-sponsoring the Rome conference.

The Centre for Medicines in the Public Interest has predicted that counterfeit drug sales could nearly double to $75bn by 2010. While the problem is worst in poor countries with weak regulation and enforcement, where counterfeiters fake medicines for life-threatening diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and Aids, much of the growth is fuelled by internet sales into western markets.Counterfeiters are now focusing not just on “lifestyle” drugs such as hormones and remedies for erectile dysfunction, but also expensive treatments for cancer and drugs in high demand, most recently the anti-viral Tamiflu.

The absence of criminal laws against counterfeiting in many countries has encouraged organised crime rings to enter the business.

“Organised crime is gravitating towards the industry because the risks are a lot less than forging currencies or trafficking heroin,” said Mr Bale. “You can make a fortune, at no risk.”

Dr Zucker said: “International police action against the factories and distribution networks should be as uncompromising as that applied to the pursuit of narcotic smuggling.”

WHO said it planned to extend to more regions a web-based system for tracking the activities of drug counterfeiters it set up last year to link national health authorities and other agencies in the western

As I arrived back in the US my mobile phone rang. It was a radio station in South Korea wanting to interview me on the fact that North Korea is now in the business of counterfeiting prescription drugs for profit. The world is paying attention. So must we.

It’s time for US regulators to join this working group and address the problem from a truly transatlantic perspective.

The lives we save may be our own.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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