EU Targets Fake Drugs on the Internet by Tanya Abu Ghazaly

Parliament protects patients from fake drugs

The war against fake pharmaceutical drugs in the EU has intensified as the Parliament recently expanded their hunt for scams on the Internet. According to the new law passed on February 16, pharmaceutical drugs sold online should be traceable and approved of by the EU to be sold legally.

The new law aimed at protecting patients has been voted for by the Parliament but is still awaiting the approval of the Council of Ministers, according to the official European Parliament’s website.

One percent of drugs in the EU and 30 percent of them in the world sold through the legal supply chain are counterfeited. The global figures have skyrocketed by 92 percent between 2005 and 2010, according to the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest. Experts are calling this a low-key, international pandemic.

Fake drugs sold on the Internet

Counterfeit drugs are silent killers that disguise themselves as genuine medication but that are actually ineffective or poisonous substances.

According to the European Medicines Agency, the manufacturers use cheap and often toxic ingredients ranging from printer ink and chalk, to amphetamines and anti-freeze.

Although these drugs can be bought from pharmacies, they most often travel from fraudulent producers to unsuspecting patients via the Internet.


Purchasing drugs off the Internet is not always a safe option.


In fact, the European Medicines Agency reports that about 90 percent of counterfeit drugs are sold on the web.

As well as the risk posed by unknown ingredients, Internet drugs circumvent traditional healthcare and this poses its own risks as underlying health conditions could be undiagnosed if people don’t seek medical advice, says Dr. Graham Jackson, a cardiologist at the Guys & St Thomas Hospital in London and an activist against fake drugs.

Developed countries at lower risk yet not immune

Although developed countries are at a much lower risk than their counterparts due to stronger regulation, expensive lifestyle drugs such as hormones and steroids reach EU households. More recently, an increasing number of life-threatening drugs such as diabetes, AIDS and cancer-related medication has infiltrated the EU market, reports the European Medicines Agency.

Jakob Bertelsen is a Danish diabetes patient and a victim of counterfeit drugs. He bought Glucophage, a drug meant to regulate blood sugar levels, from an allegedly Swiss-based website.

After the side effects of his condition reappeared two weeks after beginning his treatment, he took the drugs to a local pharmacist where they were tested and found out to be imitations.


Counterfeited drugs often appear identical to real medication.


The website, the packaging and the drug itself seemed identical to me so I never had a shadow of a doubt. That is what scares me the most. It is fortunate that I consulted professionals or one bad purchasing decision could have ended my life, says Bertelsen.

Regardless of a country’s wealth, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that counterfeit medicines are a threat to communities which is why there should be a general consensus that protects patients in the EU and globally.

Boguslaw says that a universal agreement as to what is permissible needs to be addressed. Countries within the EU and outside of it exchange drugs despite the fact that they have different laws governing drug manufacturing.

Obstacles catching online criminals

Newly implemented safety regulations that ensure the identification, authenticity and traceability of the product in question will reduce incidences of online drug scams, says Vice-chair of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety MEP Sonik Boguslaw.

Websites approved by the EU will feature common “trust logo” to prove their legitimacy, according to the official European Parliament’s website.

However, the crackdown on Internet scams aimed at baiting unknowing customers could be a challenging task.

Crime rings that are behind the scenes of online drug fraud will falsely claim to be based in the US, Canada or developed European countries to increase credibility, according to the Partnership for Safe Medicines.

A Russian-based crime ring arrested in October 2010 had domain names registered in Monaco, Australia and France, reports the Partnership for Safe Medicines.

More than 50 percent of medication found on websites that do not provide their physical Internet Protocol (IP) addresses is counterfeited, according to the World Health Organization.

Pharmaceutical companies raise awareness

Pharmaceutical companies are more and more active in raising awareness about this issue now that they are aware of the severity of the situation, says Boguslaw.

Several drug firms such as Roche, the world’s largest biotech company, offer its clients online fact sheets in order to warn them of the potential risks and how to protect themselves which is a great improvement to the attention given to the problem five years ago, says Dr. Jackson.

This raises another concern and could even be counter-productive, believes Portugese MEP and member of the left side, Marisa Matias. Since this information is available for all on the Internet, scam artists can now view the list of precautions and modify their products accordingly, Matias adds.

Ineffective legal sanctions

In some cases, producing counterfeit medicine can be ten times as profitable per kilogram as heroin, yet in the UK someone can face greater legal sanctions if they produce a counterfeit T-shirt, says Dr. Jackson.

He adds that the Internet’s shield of anonymity, the low risk of being caught by the authorities and the potentially high profits makes this illegal industry highly appealing to those motivated by greed.

Shouldn’t those who defraud pharmaceutical, wholesalers, pharmacists, and especially members of the public whose lives are at stake be given more than a simple slap on the wrist for their crimes? asks Bertelsen.

The absence of legal framework encourages counterfeiting, an organized crime. We have been witnessing a huge growth of this criminal activity, with an increase of 400% in seizures of fake drugs in 2005, says Matias.

What next?

A new method being developed in the UK uses the Internet in a constructive manner to help fight counterfeit drugs, according to the European Medicines Agency. By taking a picture of the product packaging and submitting it to an online database, the patient can find out whether the drug is authentic or not within a matter of seconds.

Scientists and pharmaceutical companies are taking the creation of new anti-counterfeit technology more seriously and want to ensure everyone’s safety by putting a complete halt on these crimes, says Dr. Jackson.

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