Europe Awash in Counterfeit Drugs

Senior EU policy makers are becoming increasingly concerned as further evidence suggests the region is awash with counterfeit medicines.

The illegal drugs frequently contain too much, too little or no active ingredient at all, or they may contain toxic substances, posing a risk to the lives of EU patients.

On Monday (7 December), EU industry commissioner Gunter Verheugen said the extent of the problem is highly alarming.

"The number of counterfeit medicines arriving in Europe constantly growing. The European Commission is extremely worried," he told the German newspaper Die Welt.

"In just two months, the EU seized 34 million fake tablets at customs points in all member countries. This exceeded our worst fears," he added.

The German commissioner insists the EU is stepping up its fight against the counterfeit drugs.

Last December saw the launch of new pharmaceutical legislation designed to improve medical information available to patients and to combat the growing proliferation of illegal medicines.

The commission-proposed measures include recognisable safety features on legally-produced drugs to help distinguish them from fakes, together with measures to better regulate pharmaceutical distributors.

Lifestyle drugs Lifestyle products such as Viagra feature prominently amongst the drugs seized within the EU, but the list also includes antibiotics, cancer treatment and anti-malaria medicines.

An EU report in July suggested a high percentage of the fake medicines come from India, with Mr. Verheugen saying the act of counterfeiting drugs should be treated as a serious crime and punished severely.

"Every faked drug is a potential massacre. Even when a medicine only contains an ineffective substance, this can lead to people dying because they think they are fighting their illness with a real drug," he said.

"I expect the EU will agree in 2010 that a drug's journey from manufacture to sale should be scrutinised carefully. There will also be anti-counterfeit markings on packaging, in particular a barcode and seal, to show clearly if a package has been opened," he said.

EU health ministers meeting in June were broadly receptive to the commission's new proposals to step up regulation in the area. However the European Parliament has criticised the decision not to include internet sales in the plans.

Citing the World Health Organisation, German Liberal MEP Jorgo Chatzimarkakis recently said 80 percent of counterfeit medicines come from the internet and that this poses a significant health risk.

Mr. Chatzimarkakis sits on the parliament's industry committee which is examining the commission proposals.

There is also concern regarding the costs of the increased regulation, with one estimate putting the figure at between €2 billion and €4 billion per year, according to a 2008 study by Europe Economics.

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