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Beware fake drugs that could hurt you
The Providence Journal


November 24, 2006

People take prescription drugs to stay well or get well. But what if your drugs aren't really what they are supposed to be? That's happening today with ever increasing frequency as impeccably packaged but extremely dangerous counterfeit drugs are being slipped into the global supply chain by Chinese pirates. Here's just a small sampling of the risks:

Your father almost dies because the "Norvasc" he was taking for high blood pressure had no active ingredients. Days later, your mother winds up in the hospital with a broken hip because her phony Evista medication for osteoporosis was molded chalk. Your brother orders Viagra over the Internet and winds up in a hospital bed with a wild heartbeat. The very next week your prized Himalayan "lap cat" succumbs to liver failure because her tick medicine turned out to contain poison.

With at least one of 10 packets of medicine worldwide now fake, drug counterfeiting is big business. Just consider this sampling from the 21st century global medicine cabinet: "Cough syrup" laced with antifreeze. "Meningitis vaccine" made from tap water. "Birth-control pills" punched from compressed wheat flour.

China is not the only country producing phony drugs. India, for one, is deep in the game. China is, however, by far the biggest player and not just because of a huge production capacity. As fast as you can say "fill this prescription, please," China's highly skilled pirates are also able to reproduce the "blister packaging," fake holograms, and distinctive pills so faithfully that drug companies typically can only detect fakes by using complex lab testing.

China's uncanny ability to excel in highly sophisticated piracy is attributable to the same factors that have let China become the world's factory floor. A flood of foreign direct investment has brought in the latest sophisticated machinery necessary to knock off whatever drug that money can be made from. Once the pills and packaging are complete, China's counterfeit drug dealers can harness many of the same transportation, distribution, and sales channels established by foreign companies in China for legitimate purposes to distribute the illegitimate products world wide.

Nor does it take a huge factory to produce counterfeit drugs. One of the simplest ways to create a phony batch of Viagra is to start with some of the authentic pills. Grind these up, add a little bulking agency, remold the pills and presto!, you have Chinese-style "Viagra Lite."

Fake Chinese drugs find their way into your medicine cabinet in many ways: A big chain gets fooled by a supplier or a small local pharmacy tries to keep its costs down by buying odd lots from wholesalers. More often than not, Internet drug consumers tend to be very easiest prey.

There is the Social Security couple getting eaten alive by medical expenses needing a drug that isn't covered by insurance or Medicare. So they try an online "Canadian" pharmacy offering cheap drugs that is really operating out of Heilongjiang Province.

There is the post-partum-depressed housewife who wants to keep her Prozac habit a secret. And the sweet 16-year-old daughter and weight-lifting 17-year-old son who go to a post-office box and get monthly orders of birth-control pills and muscle-popping Deca-Durobolin anabolic steroids.

Finally, as the anchor of the Internet drug boom, there's the aging baby boomer who isn't as good as he once was in the bedroom but wants to be as good once as he ever was. He's the number one reason why Viagra is the Internet's top-selling counterfeit drug - and why Viagra is the most heavily counterfeited drug.

Cracking down on Chinese piracy certainly won't be easy - particularly since up to a third of China's economy is pirate-driven. At least with pharmaceuticals, however, you can start be being a lot more careful about what you buy and where you buy it. Watch what your kids are up to, too. Caveat emptor!


Peter Navarro is a business professor at the University of California at Irvine and the author of "The Coming China Wars" (
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service,

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