More than 30% of all medicines in many African and Asian countries are falsified, rising to 50% for antibiotics making the fake drug market more lucrative than fake handbags and fake watches. Here in the Western world Interpol and other agencies are struggling to keep online drug sales below 1%. But they’re growing, even Tory MPs admit to shopping the world on line for drugs.
Just to be clear, fake drugs look like the real thing, packaging and pill-wise, but they aren’t. Usually they have no active ingredients, which means they don’t work. So, given consumer demand and savvy Internet shoppers you have to ask why a market for these drugs remains viable?
Lets look at the culprits.
The producers are countries where large Western pharma has little influence – India, China and Russia – who make a wide range of “pirate” (real but unlicensed) drugs and who possess the resources to develop parallel counterfeit supplies.
The distributers are illicit supply chains known to policing and regulating agencies; and given this information is also generally available in the public domain you’d think it would be widely promoted to the buying public, but perhaps drug companies are worried the publicity might impact legitimate sales or adversely affect established supply chains.
The problem, I think, is not just supply but also demand.
Internet consumerism has fed our voracious appetite for a quick and cheap deal: if we don’t like the product we can send it back. Not so with drugs. Consumers rarely question the quality of the medications they buy online; even when the drug doesn’t seem to work and especially when they have purchased outside the traditional doctor-dispensing pathway. Indeed, few of us are likely to start a dialogue about the lifestyle medications we purchased online (like slimming potions, sleeping tablets and Viagra) if they haven’t worked.
The reality is that the safe way of transacting health in conventional environments has not yet transferred to the Internet and consumers need to get wise. It is not just “indulgent” pharmaceutical products at issue here. Counterfeit cancer medicines, such as fake Avastin, are also sold on the Internet.
What consumers do understand is their right to expose rogue suppliers. The dialogue about these transactions needs to be opened up: in internet chats and on social media, with health care providers, local politicians and regulatory agencies – anyone who can help to root out rogue producers and suppliers and force change in an environment that is currently, whether deliberately or otherwise, nurturing fake supplies.
In this era of shrinking clinical resources opportunities to shift tasks, such as the provision of medications, away from hospitals and other health care institutions should be encouraged. But unless we can make the trafficking of counterfeit drugs as dire as terrorism, nothing is likely to change in a hurry.