Feature Counterfeit Medicines

Bitter pills

BMJ 2007; 335 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39412.431655.AD (Published 29 November 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;335:1120
  1. Andrew Jack, pharmaceuticals correspondent
  1. Financial Times, London
  1. Andrew.Jack{at}ft.com

    Counterfeit drugs are estimated to represent 10% of the global market in medicines, rising to almost a third in some parts of the developing world. Andrew Jack reports on bids to tackle a growing threat to patients' health

    When the UK medicines watchdog unveiled its first ever strategy to tackle counterfeiting last week,1 it was responding to growing concern about the increasingly complex, dangerous, and expanding international traffic in fake drugs. A few weeks earlier, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency had brought to trial one of the most ambitious prosecutions to date, leading to the imprisonment of four men for handling £1.5m (€2m; $3m) in counterfeits.2 Other cases concerning still more elaborate schemes are scheduled in the months ahead.

    In the past three years, the agency has issued nine withdrawal notices for suspect prescription medicines discovered in the legal distribution chain, compared with just one in the previous decade. Pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer have been forced into costly withdrawals of batches of their medicines faked by criminals.3

    Growing problem

    These incidents are almost certainly an underestimate of the extent of the traffic in counterfeit drugs in the United Kingdom. Although the agency conducts spot checks, it has limited resources to tackle a problem that has been acknowledged only relatively recently.

    One indicator is European Union customs statistics, which showed a fourfold increase last year with 497 border seizures of 2.7 million medicines.4 Although lifestyle drugs such as Viagra dominated, the hauls also included significant numbers of drugs to treat hypercholesterolaemia, osteoporosis, and hypertension. Similar increases have been reported in the United …

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