Fake drugs hurt patients and pharma

Your Word on Health bloggers suspect that there’s probably not a single one of our readers who hasn’t, at one time or another, received a spam e-mail promising erectile dysfunction drugs at bargain prices.  While annoying, we can get rid of these with fast and judicious use of the delete button.Counterfeit drugs, made in Asia and other emerging markets, are however a more serious and growing problem.  According to the Pharmaceutical Security Institute (PSI), last year, almost 1,700 incidents of counterfeit drugs were reported worldwide –  triple the number in 2004.Estimates for the size of the counterfeit drug market range from $75 billion to $200 billion a year.  The World Health Organization suspects that more than 50% of the medicine bought from certain illegal websites are fake. As frightening as that figure is, the market is probably much bigger because many cases are hard to detect…and the problem is expected to get worse.

Fake drugs are a “money machine.” Sales are growing at twice the rate of legitimate pharmaceuticals, says Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.  A weak economy along with rising drug prices are likely leading consumers to seek out cheaper products online or from unauthorized providers.

However, others believe that it’s not cheaper prices that drive consumers to counterfeit medicine, but their “lack of education and awareness of the dangers.” Counterfeit medicine may include too much, too little or none of the ingredients found in the real product, causing injury and, in extreme cases, death.

While fake drugs have been around for decades, the Internet’s growth and the popularity of Pfizer’s erectile dysfunction drug Viagra in the 1990s created the “perfect storm” to fuel this underground industry.

Today, drug rings in Asia, particularly in China and India, are increasingly churning out fake versions of popular brands and generics, then selling them to consumers online or in the black market.

Counterfeiters are now able to fake drugs so well, even experts find it hard to distinguish the copies from the real deal. And they’re able to replicate security devices such as holograms only a few months after pharmaceutical companies put these features on their packages.

You can make more money in counterfeit drugs than heroin,” says Tom Kubic, CEO of PSI. “There’s a major financial incentive for criminals because of the low risk of detection and prosecution.”

Now, drugmakers are fighting back.  Most pharmaceutical companies routinely gather information about fake drugs and pass it along to authorities. Some are even sharing such information with their competitors, sometimes leading to raids of suspected manufacturing facilities.

Fake medicines put both the reputation of the industry and, even more importantly, patients’ lives at risk.  They also divert consumers away from the legitimate products.

The FDA has produced some great resources to educate people about dangers of fake drugs.

Along with tips for buying medicines, the Agency’s website offers summaries of recent safety alerts and how to spot and report fraudulent or dangerous products.

One example of this is their “Warning Signs” of an unsafe drug web site.

They advise consumers to stay away from any site that:

  • offers prices that are dramatically lower than the competition
  • may offer to sell prescription drugs without a prescription—this is against the law
  • sends you drugs with unknown quality or origin
  • gives you the wrong drug or another dangerous product for your illness
  • doesn’t provide a way to contact the web site by phone

Seems the old adage “you get what you pay for” applies to drugs too

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