Mon, Oct 04, 2004 - Page 2 News List

Counterfeit drugs widespread

NATIONWIDE RISK A quarter of all pharmaceuticals customers may be purchasing drugs that have less -- or none -- of the active ingredient they think they are getting

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Vast quantities of fake and substandard medicines are being sold in drugstores nationwide, the Department of Health warned yesterday.

After the Bureau of Investigation's Taichung branch seized illegally made and sold tablets worth NT$300 million on Saturday, the Bureau of Pharmaceutical Affairs urged the public to buy only Chinese-labeled officially authorized drugs.

The counterfeit medicines are mostly new, expensive drugs to reduce weight or enhance sexual prowess, the Bureau said. Viagra, Cialis, Reductil and Stilnox were the counterfeiters' top targets.

"A quarter of all customers may unknowingly be buying fake over-the-counter drugs," said bureau Director-General Wang Hui-po (王惠珀).

Wang said that the nationwide sale of fake drugs is part of a global phenomenon, according to World Health Organization surveys.

"The US Food and Drug Administration estimates that counterfeits make up more than 10 percent of the global pharmaceutical market and are present in both industrialized and developing countries," Wang said. "It is estimated that up to 25 percent of the medicines consumed in poor countries are counterfeit or substandard."

However, trade in popular medicines is far more prevalent in unregulated markets. "Viagra, Cialis, the anti-obesity drug Reductil and the sleeping pill Stilnox account for at least 40 percent to 50 percent of the substandard tablets," warned Carol Cheng (程馨), chief operating officer of the International Research-based Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association.

The counterfeit drugs in the Tai-chung racket were mostly made in China, where nearly 80 percent of medicines sold are bogus, Cheng said.

Because counterfeiting of medicines is a hugely lucrative business due to high demand and low production costs, the full extent of the problem is hard to gauge, officials said.

"Advanced forgery technology and convenient transportation have helped internationalize the counterfeit pharmaceuticals trade," said bureau official Dai Shue-yong (戴雪詠).

"Faced with the rapidly growing underground trade, our local health branches are deplorably understaffed," Dai said. In each local health office, there are three to five officials in charge of pharmaceutical affairs.

While 27 cases of illegal production and sale of substandard drugs were reported in 2002, the figure has jumped to 41 so far this year.

The health department vowed to fight fake and substandard medicines by tightening its regulatory controls and enforcing penalties that were increased in March.

According to the revised Article 83 of the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law (藥事法), those who illegally supply or sell fake drugs face a penalty up to NT$25 million and a sentence of up to ten years.

Wang said any pharmacist would lose his or her license if they were found to be selling fake drugs.

Tests on known counterfeits showed that most contained less of the active ingredients than genuine tablets, according to Lien Jui-meng (連瑞猛), president of the Taipei Pharmacists Association.

"We don't know that the `wrong' components will be harmful, but the user runs the risk of poor quality and possible toxicity, not to mention the fact that there is a high probability that the tablets may have no clinical effect," Lien said.

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