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How Many Drugs are Actually Counterfeit?
What is Being Done?

Counterfeit drugs, which may contain no active ingredient, a wrong active ingredient or be contaminated, are a growing health threat in the United States and worldwide, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

counterfeit drugs

Drug shipments are often traded between wholesalers before they reach your pharmacy, making it nearly impossible to track down where they originally came from.

Up to 10 percent of drugs worldwide are thought to be counterfeit, according to the FDA, while in some developing countries counterfeits may make up over 50 percent of the drug supply.

Increasingly, counterfeit drugs are being sold online, and the FDA recently issued a warning to consumers about 24 related Web sites that are reportedly selling counterfeit drugs. However, the Internet is not the only method used to sell counterfeits; fake drugs have also been obtained from reputable U.S. pharmacies.

Why Counterfeit Drugs are a Lucrative Bet for Criminals

Federal forecasters predict that spending for prescription drugs in the United States will reach nearly $498 billion by 2016. This is more than double the amount spent in 2006.

With this kind of massive profit potential, criminals can make a fortune just by cashing in on a sliver of the market.

"Some of the experts are telling us it's more lucrative to sell a counterfeit drug than it is a narcotic such as heroin," said William Hubbard, FDA's former associate commissioner for policy and planning, in a WebMD article.

Often, the drugs most at risk of being counterfeit are those that cost the most, such as those used to treat HIV/AIDs and cancer patients, which can cost thousands of dollars per prescription.

It May be Impossible to Know Where Your Drugs Come From

prescription drug risks

Always inspect your medications before taking them. If anything seems different (taste, smell, appearance, packaging) contact your doctor or pharmacist.

Three prescription drug wholesalers handle about 90 percent of the drugs sold in the United States. Drugs are supposed to travel from the factory, to a reputable wholesaler, and then on to your pharmacy.

However, about 10 percent of drugs are handled by any number of "secondary-source" wholesalers before they reach the pharmacy. While even the three major U.S. drug wholesalers sometimes trade drug shipments back and forth and could end up with counterfeits, many of the fake drugs come out of the smaller wholesalers.

By the time drug shipments are passed between several of these operations, it becomes nearly impossible to track the original source.

To help combat phony drugs, state and federal governments are looking to implement an ePedigree program that would document a drug's travels from factory to consumer. Both federal and state governments have recommended radio-frequency identification (RFID) as the best method to keep track of the drug supply.

The legislature has yet to be passed on a federal level, but as of November 2006, at least 10 states had passed legislation on ePedigree.

How to Protect Yourself From Counterfeit Drugs

A nationwide ePedigree system is being touted as the best way to radically reduce, or even eliminate, counterfeit drugs in the United States, but until that happens drugs -- even those from well-known pharmacy chains -- may be at risk.

One way you can protect yourself from phony drugs is by reducing your dependency on and need for drugs in the first place. Simply adopting a healthy lifestyle -- with plenty of nourishing foods, exercise and happiness -- will go a long way toward keeping you feeling great without a need for medications.

If you must take prescription drugs, you can keep an eye out for potential counterfeits by:

  • Double-checking your medication before you take it. Examine the appearance, smell and packaging for changes.

  • Taking note of side effects/effectiveness of the drug. Did it feel differently when you took it?

If you think you may have come across a counterfeit drug, you should notify your doctor or pharmacist and can also report suspected counterfeit drugs online to the FDA.

Recommended Reading

Illegal Drugs Identification Chart: What They Look Like & How to Recognize Their Effects

The Five Most Dangerous Medicine Mistakes that Way Too Many People Make


U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

U.S. FDA: Counterfeit Drugs


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