A major threat to public health
Pharmaceutical crime involves the manufacture, trade and distribution of fake, stolen or illicit medicines and medical devices. It encompasses the counterfeiting and falsification of medical products, their packaging and associated documentation, as well as theft, fraud, illicit diversion, smuggling, trafficking, the illegal trade of medical products and the money laundering associated with it.
We are seeing a significant increase in the manufacture, trade and distribution of counterfeit, stolen and illicit medicines and medical devices. Patients across the world put their health, even life, at risk by unknowingly consuming fake drugs or genuine drugs that have been doctored, badly stored or that have expired.
Illicit drugs can contain the wrong dose of active ingredient, or none at all, or a different ingredient. They are associated with a number of dangers and, at worst, can result in heart attack, coma or death.
The fight against counterfeit medicines is crucial in order to ensure the quality of products in circulation and to protect public health on a global scale.
The increasing prevalence of counterfeit and illicit goods has been compounded by the rise in Internet trade, where they can be bought easily, cheaply and without a prescription. It is impossible to quantify the extent of the problem, but in some areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America counterfeit medical goods can form up to 30% of the market.
The problem of organized crime
Organized criminal networks are attracted by the huge profits to be made through pharmaceutical crime. They operate across national borders in activities that include the import, export, manufacture and distribution of counterfeit and illicit medicines. Coordinated and cross-sector action on an international level is therefore vital in order to identify, investigate and prosecute the criminals behind these crimes.
An INTERPOL analytical report examines the links between pharmaceutical crime and organized crime. Download the public version of the report (published in July 2014).
At INTERPOL, we are tackling this major problem in three main ways:
- Coordinating operations in the field to disrupt transnational criminal networks;
- Delivering training in order to build the skills and knowledge of all those agencies involved in the fight against pharmaceutical crime;
- Building partnerships across a variety of sectors.
If you would like to get involved with our work, please contact us.
The dangers of counterfeit medical products
Counterfeit products are harmful and can even be fatal.
Fake medicines range from useless to highly dangerous. They often contain the wrong level of active ingredient – too little, too much or none at all – or an active ingredient intended for a different purpose. In some cases, fake medicines have been found to contain highly toxic substances such as rat poison. In all these scenarios, the person taking the counterfeit medicine is putting their health, even their life, at risk.
One can easily be deceived by counterfeit medicines: they are often packaged to a high standard with fake pills that look identical to the genuine ones. Sometimes a laboratory test is the only way to identify the difference.
The extent of the problem
Counterfeit medicine is now a truly global phenomenon, and all countries of the world are affected as source, transit or destination points.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to 1 per cent of medicines available in the developed world are likely to be counterfeit. This figure rises to 10 per cent globally, but in some areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America counterfeit goods can form up to 30 per cent of the market.
Counterfeiting applies not only to ‘lifestyle’ medicines, including erectile dysfunction and weight loss medicines, but also to ‘lifesaving medicines’ including those used to treat cancer, heart disease and other serious illnesses.
And it’s not just medicines. Fake medical devices also pose a risk. The term ‘medical device’ covers a wide range of healthcare products from contact lenses to condoms; syringes to surgical instruments; and wheelchairs to radiotherapy machines.
Risks of buying medicines over the Internet
More and more people are buying medicines and medical devices over the Internet, through online pharmacies and auction sites. Unfortunately, a large number of these Internet sites are unauthorized, unregulated and trade in illicit or sub-standard products.
If an online supplier conceals its physical address, this is a warning sign that their products could be dangerous. The WHO estimates that 50 per cent of medicines available from such websites are counterfeit.
In particular, buying prescription-only medicines from unauthorized or dubious sources significantly increases the risk of getting sub-standard or fake products. It is important to consult a healthcare professional for prescription-only medicines and to obtain the medicines from a regulated source.
Buying medicines online may seem cheaper, quicker and more convenient than going through your doctor and high street pharmacy, but the dangers outweigh the benefits by far. Don’t take the risk.
Links of interest
- Buying Medicines Over the Internet, US Food and Drug Administration
- Buying drugs over the Internet, Health Canada
- Advice and information for consumers, Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) of the UK.
- Dangers of buying health products over the Internet, Health Sciences Authority, Singapore.
- Internetpillen (in Dutch only)
At INTERPOL, we promote concrete law enforcement actions in the field with the ultimate aim of protecting the public from sub-standard and dangerous goods. We offer an ‘interventions package’ to support all stages of an investigation from gathering intelligence, planning and implementing an operation, through to legal issues for cases that are brought to court.
On-the-ground operations are run on a national and regional level in order to disrupt transnational criminal networks involved in pharmaceutical crime. Directed at both physical outlets and Internet suppliers, these are multi-agency efforts supported by key scientific partners.
Our flagship operations – Storm (Southeast Asia), Mamba (Eastern Africa) and Pangea (targeting the Internet) – continue to go from strength to strength. Successive raids on licit and illicit markets have shown improved results in terms of seizures, arrests, convictions and the closure of illicit websites.
These operations both highlight the success of multidisciplinary enforcement action and confirm the crucial need for continued intervention in this area.
Combating the sale of illegal medicines online
Operation Pangea is an international week of action tackling the online sale of counterfeit and illicit medicines and highlighting the dangers of buying medicines online. Coordinated by INTERPOL, the annual operation brings together customs, health regulators, national police and the private sector from countries around the world.
Activities target the three principal components used by illegal websites to conduct their trade – the Internet Service Provider (ISP), payment systems and the delivery service.
The operation has gained significant momentum since its launch in 2008. The first phase of the operation brought together 10 countries; a number which has now risen to more than 100.
Dates: 13-20 May 2014
Participating countries: 113
Participating agencies: 198
- 9.6 million fake and illicit medicines seized, including slimming pills, cancer medication, erectile dysfunction pills, cough and cold medication, anti-malarial, cholesterol medication and nutritional products;
- Seizures worth more than USD 32 million;
- 434 arrests;
- 1,249 investigations launched;
- 22,800 adverts for illicit pharmaceuticals removed from social media platforms;
- More than 11,800 websites shut down.
Dates: 18-28 June 2013
Participating countries: 99 in total
- 10.1 million illicit and counterfeit pills confiscated;
- Estimated value: USD 36 million;
- More than 13,700 websites shut down;
- Some 534,00 packages inspected by regulators and customs authorities, of which around 41,000 were confiscated;
- Some 213 individuals are currently under investigation or under arrest for a range of offences, including: illegal internet activity; illegal sale of medicines and supplying unlicensed medicines.
Dates: 25 September – 2 October 2012
Participating countries: 100 in total
- 3.75 million illicit and counterfeit pills confiscated;
- Estimated value: USD 10.5 million;
- More than 18,000 websites shut down;
- Some 133,000 packages inspected by regulators and customs authorities, of which around 6,700 were confiscated;
- Some 80 individuals are currently under investigation or under arrest for a range of offences, including operating a clandestine laboratory producing counterfeit medicines; membership of a criminal group selling illicit medicine online; and operating websites selling illicit medicines.
Dates: 20 – 27 September 2011
Participating countries: 81 in total
- 2.4 million illicit and counterfeit pills confiscated;
- Estimated value: USD 6.3 million;
- Almost 13,500 websites shut down;
- Some 45,500 packages inspected by regulators and customs authorities, of which almost 8,000 were seized;
- Some 55 individuals are currently under investigation or under arrest for a range of offences, including illegally manufacturing, selling and supplying unlicensed or prescription-only medicines.
Dates: 5 – 12 October 2010
Participating countries: (44 in total) Angola, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, China (+ Hong Kong, China), Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Slovak Republic, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, United Kingdom, Uruguay and the United States of America.
- 87 individuals arrested/under investigation;
- 102 search warrants executed;
- More than 2 million pills seized;
- 297 websites taken down;
- Estimated value: USD 6.77 million;
- More than 1,000 police messages exchanged;
- 350 checks carried out in INTERPOL’s databases.
Dates: 16-20 November 2009
Participating countries: (25 in total) Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Lichtenstein, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, United Kingdom and United States of America.
- Identification of more than 1,200 websites engaged in illegal activity including the sale of suspected counterfeit medicines as well as controlled or prescription-only drugs;
- 237 other websites closely investigated and 153 of them shut down;
- 17 adverts promoting medicines on auction websites removed;
- A total of 59 suspects identified. At least 12 of them were arrested and the others investigated for a range of offences related to the illegal sale of pharmaceutical products.
Date: 12 November 2008
Participating countries: (10 in total) Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland, United Kingdom and United States of America.
- Commercial websites taken down;
- Postal depots monitored and parcels examined; packages containing suspected counterfeit medicines intercepted;
- Thousands of suspected counterfeit erectile dysfunction drugs and other medicines seized or identified and withdrawn from circulation;
- Consumer awareness raised via global press coverage.
Pangea I was organized by the Permanent Forum on International Pharmaceutical Crime (PFIPC) and supported by INTERPOL.
We work to bring together different players – from police, customs, health regulatory authorities, scientists, and the private sector – to tackle pharmaceutical crimes.
Our network of 190 member countries allows us to connect stakeholders across the world, and carry out effective training and operations in specific regions.
Our main partners are as follows:
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- Permanent Forum on International Pharmaceutical Crime (PFIPC)
- Pharmaceutical Security Institute (PSI)
- International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA)
- Health Sciences Authority, Singapore (HSA)
Pharmaceutical Industry Initiative to Combat Crime
Fake medicines threaten the lives of millions of people around the world.
At INTERPOL, our efforts to combat this global health problem were given renewed impetus in March 2013 by the Pharmaceutical Industry Initiative to Combat Crime.
In this agreement with 29 of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, funding worth EUR 4.5 million over three years will enable us to build on our current activities and boost the law enforcement community’s response to pharmaceutical crime.
The programme will focus on the prevention of all types of pharmaceutical crime including the counterfeiting of both branded and generic drugs.
As well as funding law enforcement operations to identify and dismantle the organized crime networks linked to this illegal activity, the programme will also allow for expanded training and capacity building opportunities for police, and for stronger partnership development between INTERPOL and the pharmaceutical sector.
Given the scale of the problem – according to the World Health Organization, an estimated 10 per cent of medicines are fake and these figures can go up to 30 per cent, particularly in some poorer countries – an essential part of the programme is to raise public awareness of the dangers of fake drugs, particularly for people buying medicines on the Internet.
The companies participating in this initiative are:
- Astellas Pharma
- Bayer AG
- Boehringer Ingelheim
- Chugai Pharmaceutical Co.
- Daiichi Sankyo
- Dainippon Sumitomo Pharma
- Eisai Co.
- Johnson & Johnson
- Menarini SA
- Merck & Co.
- Merck KGaA
- Novo Nordisk
- Otsuka Pharmaceuticals
- Shionogi & Co.
- Takeda Chemical Industries