Wednesday, March 17, 2004

More Problems with Counterfeit Medications

By Lisa Stark and Philip Stewart

March 16 — The prescription drug industry is a $190 billion-a-year business. With that much money to be made, and with the price of drugs in the United States skyrocketing, an increasing number of criminals are turning to a lucrative trade — counterfeit medications.

"The counterfeiters are getting more sophisticated," said Dr. Mark McClellan, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. "We're seeing increasingly well-organized criminal operations coming into the drug distribution system and trying to make a fast buck at the expense of the public health."

The FDA currently has 22 counterfeit drug investigations under way, according to McClellan. That has increased fourfold from the late 1990s, when the agency averaged only five such investigations a year. It is scheduled to address drug wholesalers, manufacturers and other industry officials Wednesday in an effort to raise awareness of counterfeit drugs.

[...] To prevent the growing problem, the FDA wants drug manufacturers to put a tracking system in place voluntarily by 2007. The makers of tracking devices have been testing tiny radio frequency computer chips that would be attached to drug labels or the prescription packaging.

"FDA will not rest until we have strong protections in each link of the drug supply chain, and we intend to work with all of those involved in getting medicines to Americans legally and safely to make sure that Americans are protected," McClellan said.

Analysis: This is a really nasty problem.  I urge everyone to be vigilant about every aspect of getting prescriptions filled, checking the labels and the contents of what they get, and reporting any suspected problem to their pharmacy immediately.  The mandatory tracking system is going to be expensive, and it will difficult if not impossible to use for drugs that people get from foreign countries (other than Canada).  Until the tracking system is in place, I think it would be best for us to still use local pharmacies, instead of mail-order pharmacies, whenever possible. 

With a local pharmacy, you can take the drug back and have the pharmacist look at it, without too much trouble.  With mail order, it could take days to get the medication back to the pharmacy and have someone look at it or test it.  Most people won't go through the hassle unless they is something way out of line. 

Having the pharmacist look at the medication will not always resolve questions about the drug's authenticity, but it could help catch some of the problems. 

We need a special prison for these kinds of criminals.  Medication counterfeiters, the people who collected donations after 9/11, and pocketed the money; people who impersonate police officers; and high-profile corporate crooks like Ken Lay, all deserve special treatment.