Foreign Counterfeit Drugs Pose Increasing Threat

Published January 1, 2009

A bust confiscating more than two million counterfeit medicines in a Brussels airport has sparked new concern over the safety of the prescription drug market, in particular from online import sources.

The shipment of painkillers and anti-malaria drugs originated from India and was on its way to Africa. Customs officials became suspicious of the shipment when they noticed misspellings on the labels, according to investigators.

European Union authorities called the episode the largest confiscation of counterfeit drugs in European history. The September discovery has heightened concerns about drug safety and the purchasing of prescriptions online, which oftentimes means buying from other countries.

‘Tremendous’ Risk

“Americans should be vigilant when shopping for drugs online,” said Devon Herrick, Ph.D., a senior fellow of the National Center for Policy Analysis. “There are numerous legitimate companies that offer convenience and low prices. However, there are also unscrupulous vendors who are not what they purport to be.

“This is especially true of foreign Web sites,” Herrick continued. “The risk of receiving a counterfeit drug when dealing with a foreign Web site is tremendous. Moreover, Americans wanting to save money have opportunities to take advantage of low prices on generic drugs at Wal-Mart, Target, and numerous other sources.”

Some insurance companies encourage their customers to purchase medications at a lower price from Web sites selling prescription drugs from foreign countries such as India, Canada, and the United Kingdom, according to industry experts. Analysts say this practice is dangerous for insurers and consumers alike.

‘Buyer Beware’

“If you’re an American and you’re buying drugs outside of the U.S. regulatory environment, it really becomes a ‘buyer beware’ situation,” said Peter Pitts, former member of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s anti-counterfeit drug task force and current president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest. “It’s a high-risk proposition. Sometimes you get a drug that has too much or too little of the active ingredient in the medicine or one that has poisonous compounds. It’s not a way to take care of yourself.

“Any U.S.-based insurance company that is recommending that its clientele source their drug outside of the United States is not only breaking the law, but they are putting their customers at peril,” Pitts continued. “They are recommending that their customers potentially do business with criminals and are putting profits above health care. It is a very dangerous proposition.”

Less Savings

Some experts, such as Greg Scandlen, director of Consumers for Health Care Choices at The Heartland Institute, say allowing drug manufacturers to sell directly to consumers from their Web sites would be one way to avoid the problem of people unwittingly purchasing dangerous drugs from other countries.

In addition, Scandlen says, drug importation may not provide the same level of savings it once did.

“In my opinion, purchasing drugs online or from other countries is not as attractive today as it was a few years ago, because of the exchange rate,” Scandlen said. “Those savings were all based on a strong U.S. dollar and weak Canadian dollar. Nowadays, you buy a lot less in Canada for one dollar than before.

“Initially, some state-based programs encouraged people to buy drugs from Canada because of the savings, but the advantage is no longer there,” Scandlen said.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Illinois.