The drugs don't work: Asia's massive fake meds industry

The drugs don't work: Asia's massive fake meds industry

Traveling in Asia? Feel poorly? Don't be taken in by cheap medicines -- they may be counterfeit
fake medications Asia
Viagra is one of the world's most frequently counterfeited drugs.

If you’re traveling to Asia and have a health complaint, beware -- some countries in the region are hot spots for the manufacture and sale of bogus medication.

Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are of particular concern -- peddlers of fake medication use older heroin and methamphetamine smuggling networks around the “Golden Triangle” to get their drugs across borders.

“Be careful what you buy -- and where” is the message to consumers and travelers from experts who met at a forum on the subject in Bangkok recently, not far from street vendors peddling fake sex pills near one of the city's red-light areas.

“An estimated 3,000 people die each day around the world from taking fake medications,” reckons Scott Davis, a former U.S. customs official, now senior regional director (Asia-Pacific) in Pfizer's Global Security section.

Viagra is Pfizer’s most frequently counterfeited medicine, he adds.

fake drugs in AsiaManila customs officials confiscate US$9 million in fake medicines, cellphone batteries, cellphone chargers and counterfeit designer bags in February 2012.

One-third fake

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 10-30 percent of medications sold in poorer countries are fake and Davis believes the fake medicine industry is growing faster than the legitimate counterpart it leeches off.

Fake meds can include ingredients such as arsenic, heavy metals, pesticide, printer ink and leaded paint, and either too much or too little of the active ingredient to have the desired effect.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises travelers to avoid medicines sold on the street, and to watch out for medication that is underpriced or comes in poor quality packaging or is not in its original packaging -- though some counterfeiters can cover up their work with carbon-copy branding.

Instead, stick to well-known or branded pharmacies, and pay the standard price -- regardless of the allure of cheaper meds available from street stalls.

Davis says he has “not heard of a single incident of named pharmacies in Asia having an incident of a breach of their supplies by counterfeits.” 

For non-brand retailers, it is important to check that they have a license from the country's Ministry of Health and have a licensed pharmacist on premises, says Davis.

Pfizer, stung by the losses incurred due to the sale of fake medications with the company's branding, is pushing hard for governments around the world to clamp down on a multi-billion dollar transnational crime nexus.

In November 2011 China jailed eight fake sex pill manufacturers, after criminalizing the counterfeiting of medicines -- even raising the maximum penalty to death, to try to contain illegal production in the world's fastest growing medicine market.

China's fake med problem is a global one, however -- about 40 percent of China’s estimated US$3 billion 2010 sales of counterfeit medicines, healthcare products and medical equipment last year were exported, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

That means such countries as Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the United States have all been affected by the fake meds scourge, with online shoppers at particular risk, says Anna-Lise Sauterey, a Bangkok-based researcher at the Institute for Research on Contemporary Southeast Asia (IRASEC), a wing of the French Foreign Ministry.

fake viagraOctober 2, 2008 -- customs officers at Brussels airport seize more than two million counterfeit medical pills from India, the biggest such seizure ever in Europe.

Even worse online

“More than 50 percent of the medications sold online are fake,” she says.

Making sure the site requires a prescription and has a pharmacist available for questions is one bit of advice given to shoppers who buy online, but a recent U.S. Government agency statement warned: “A rogue Internet website marketing drug products may look like a professional and legitimate website, but may actually be an illegal operation.”

With a booming online and emerging-economy market, fake medication is a new growth area for criminal gangs, with “low-hanging fruit” ripe for the picking, according to analysts.

Some estimates suggest that US$1,000 seed money to set up a fake meds operation can yield US$450,000 return, compared with US$20,000 for the same investment in heroin.

"With low risks and high returns, the attraction to criminal groups is evident," outlined the UNODC 2010 report. Police corruption or collusion has long been a factor enabling the heroin and “yabaa” (methamphetamine) trade in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

However, even straight cops might not stop the fake medication trade, with big bucks at stake. “Police are trained, in many cases, to check for narcotics along borders,” says Sauterey.

However, she adds: “They do not have the same awareness of fake medications and often let what appear like legitimate pills pass without scrutiny.” 

Simon Roughneen has reported from Pakistan, Haiti, Kosovo, the Middle East and from various countries in Africa. He is currently covering southeast Asia. Visit his website simonroughneen.com or follow him on twitter @simonroughneen

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