NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Bitter Pill of Fake Drugs

May 15, 2003

As more high-priced prescription medications hit the market, they are proving irresistible to counterfeiters, who have successfully slipped fake, mislabeled and mishandled drugs into U.S. pharmacies.

  • Investigators have seized vials of anemia treatments Procrit and Epogen containing 20 times less active ingredient than labeled.
  • AIDS patients who rely on Serostim to prevent muscle wasting have fallen ill after injecting a fake.
  • Pharmacists have alerted the Food and Drug Administration to white pills labeled ''aspirin'' in bottles of schizophrenia treatment Zyprexa.
  • Ten types of counterfeit drugs moved through Florida in the past two years, investigators say, including Procrit, Epogen, Serostim, Zyprexa, antifungal Diflucan and AIDS drugs Combivir and Retrovir.

What some investigators are calling the biggest jump in fake-drug cases in more than a decade is fueled by three things: increasingly sophisticated forged labels, an abundance of small wholesalers buying and reselling medications, and a growing number of expensive new treatments that can net forgers large profits.

While still only a tiny fraction of the $192 billion worth of drugs sold in the USA annually, the amount of counterfeit or adulterated drugs could grow as additional costly, genetically engineered medications hit the market in coming years, investigators fear.

Investigators say the cases show there are growing holes in the U.S. drug safety net:

  • In most states, it's too easy to get a wholesaler's license to distribute drugs to pharmacies and hospitals.
  • Hundreds -- and in some states, thousands -- of wholesalers are licensed.

An abundance of distributors means more opportunities for problem drugs to enter the system, regulators say.

Source: Julie Appleby, "Fake drugs show up in U.S. pharmacies As prescription prices rise, counterfeiters chase profits," USA TODAY, May 15, 2003.


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