February 15, 2007 16:33 ET

Are Counterfeit Drugs Finding Their Way to Your Home?

NEW YORK, NY -- (MARKET WIRE) -- February 15, 2007 --Up to 40 million of the prescription bottles handed out in the U.S. today are filled with substances that aren't what they claim to be, according to this Sunday's issue of PARADE magazine. "Drug counterfeiting," a business that has expanded in the last five years, has already taken the lives of several Americans, and the perpetrators have walked off with nearly $35 billion in black-market profits. Unsuspecting consumers who buy prescription drugs from their corner pharmacy probably won't discover the reason why they are getting sicker instead of better.

Some people call the process of drug counterfeiting the most perfect crime in medicine: Buy some empty gelatin capsules, fill them with worthless powder, print up a phony label and sell them to a drug wholesaler who has no scruples or just chooses to look the other way. "We're seeing a lot more of this than ever before," says John Theriault, vice president for global security at Pfizer. The problem has become serious enough for Pfizer to develop its own private team of 17 former law enforcement agents to investigate counterfeit drugs. Theriault says his team has come across drug labs in homes, hotel rooms and overseas warehouses.

Not every counterfeit drug is cooked up in an illicit lab, however. Some suppliers boost their profits by "uplabeling" -- for example, passing off a 10mg dose of a drug as 40mg. Expiration dates may be altered too. Not surprisingly, the Internet is another common source of counterfeits. Direct-to-consumer Web sites offer great deals that are literally too good to be true. Last year, the FDA investigated 53 cases of drug counterfeiting -- up from six just five years ago.

Solving this problem will not be quick or easy but the FDA has encouraged drug companies to track their pills after they leave the factory. GlaxoSmithKline, for example, now inscribes its pills and packages with invisible text symbols to authenticate its products. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), an advanced variety of bar code, allows officials to scan entire pallets of drugs, making it hard to slip bogus products into the supply chain.

Thankfully, the chances are fairly slim that your pills could be fakes. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 10 percent of the medications sold globally are actually counterfeit and the number in the U.S. is estimated to be about 1-percent. So how do you protect yourself? Here are a few precautions you can take to avoid counterfeit drugs:

--  Don't buy prescription drugs online unless it's through the web site
    of a legitimate pharmacy.
--  Look closely at your medicine. Note any signs of runny coloring or
    shoddy logos on the pills.
--  Watch for changes in appearance or taste in the prescriptions you
    regularly take.
--  Bring any reliable medication that suddenly begins to have no effect
    to your doctor right away.
For more on counterfeit prescription drugs and how to report suspicions about your medicine, visit

Contact Information

    PARADE Magazine Publicist
    Alexis Collado
    (212) 450-7014