Fake Medications Are a Growing Threat
There's lots of profit in counterfeit drugs, so consumers should be on guard
Counterfeit prescription drugs are a $35 billion-a-year business, and it's growing; by some estimates, 50 percent of prescription drugs in Africa, including those used to treat AIDS and malaria, are fake. Americans have long considered themselves immune, but a huge proportion of the prescription medications and devices used in the United States are now manufactured overseas, and the risks are escalating for Americans, too. It's no surprise; last year alone Americans spent $275 billion on their prescriptions. Consider:
• Last fall, counterfeit diabetes test strips from China flooded the U.S. market. The fake blood glucose monitoring strips first came to light in September, when 15 patients called the consumer hotline at LifeScan, sellers of the tests, and complained that they were getting faulty results. Surveillance by the company found fake OneTouch test strips on pharmacy shelves. More than 1 million fake test strips were distributed and were being sold in 700 pharmacies in 35 states. LifeScan and the Food and Drug Administration alerted patients and doctors in October, saying that relying on the bogus product could cause serious injury or death. Investigators for Johnson & Johnson, LifeScan's parent company, traced the counterfeit goods through importers in Florida and Canada to a company in Shanghai.
• In May, the FDA announced that patients who had bought Orlistat, a weight-loss drug, over the Internet received pills that looked identical to the Roche product but contained talc and starch.
• Fake Lipitor pills made in Costa Rica were mingled with genuine Lipitor illegally imported from Brazil, then distributed to pharmacies in at least 15 states. Last October, Julio Cesar Cruz, a Cuban living in Miami, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for his role in the $12.8 million-dollar drug ring. The problem first came to light in April 2003, after patients noticed that the pills had a bitter taste and dissolved quickly in their mouth. The FDA recalled more than 18 million fake and repackaged tablets. Lipitor, the biggest-selling drug in the world, is a statin used to treat high cholesterol.
Clearly the risks of counterfeit medications are no longer confined to drugs bought from Internet pharmacies—which do indeed pose a large risk. Last month, officials in Canada confirmed that Marsha Bergeron, a 58-year-old woman who lived on Vancouver Island, died of metal poisoning in December 2006 after taking tainted prescription medications purchased from an Internet pharmacy, including a sleeping pill. The drugs contained toxic amounts of aluminum.
Since 1999, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy has certified online drugstores that meet national standards. That list is surprisingly short, with only 13 currently listed. A survey released this week by MarkMonitor, a San Francisco-based firm that keeps tabs on online sales and marketing abuses, found that just four of the 3,160 online pharmacies surveyed were certified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy as legitimate. Many offered pharmaceuticals at prices lower even than wholesalers, suggesting that the drugs being sold were, according to MarkMonitor's report, fake, stolen, alternate, expired, gray market, or diluted. "A relatively sophisticated person would be misled," says Fred Felsen, chief marketing officer for MarkMonitor. "Caveat emptor really doesn't work."