Health Canada is drafting a new anti-counterfeit strategy to crack down on the counterfeit pills that is causing a menace. The marketing of fake pharmaceutical drugs has become a major headache for the government agencies.
The fatal consequences of these counterfeit pills are immense. A woman from British Columbia is fatally poisoned by counterfeit anxiety pills she ordered over the Internet, four Ontario patients die after apparently consuming fake -- and ineffective -- heart drugs, while Quebec vendors are spotted selling knock-off Viagra at a flea market.
For Health Canada officials used to dealing with a "generally compliant industry," counterfeiting represents a novel kind of health issue, said Paul Duchesne, a department spokesman.
"Within the paradigm of counterfeiting, those responsible not only have deceitful intentions, but complete disregard for the regulatory system," he said. "This new paradigm will require training and collaboration."
The new strategy by the agency will have beefed-up enforcement, stronger ties with police and a public-education campaign. The federal agency is also planning to hold a conference of interested parties to discuss the threat when the plan is released this fall.
The situation in Canada is not as worrisome as in some parts of the developing countries where more than half the pharmaceutical medicines in the market are counterfeit. For example Israel has been ranked 10th on the list of countries counterfeiting pharmaceuticals. In Israel, there were 45 documented cases of the manufacture or distribution of such drugs last year.
If the situation is left unchecked in Canada it could blow out of proportion. "I think we do need to take action ? The quantity isn't large, but the consequences can be pretty severe," said Superintendent Ken Hansen, director of federal enforcement at the RCMP. "It's something you want to try to nip in the bud before it gets out of control."
Canada's system of licensed, store-front pharmacies is still fairly safe, thanks to a tight regulatory system and a relatively small number of middlemen that makes slipping counterfeits into the supply chain difficult, experts say.
Counterfeit drugs have emerged globally as a major problem in the last five years, with one U.S. organization predicting that worldwide sales could reach $75-billion by 2010. Criminally minded counterfeiters can make copies of expensive pills cheaply, sell them cheaply and earn a healthy profit.
Of lately these fake drugs have been circulating in the Canadian health market through unregulated Internet sites and even, in less common cases, at those licensed, real pharmacies.
Internet drug sites selling counterfeit medication are a complex and emerging health care problem," coroner Kerry Clarke warned in her report.
A pharmacy in Hamilton, Ont., was charged with fraud after selling fake versions of Norvasc, a heart drug, containing only talc.
The recent case involved Marcia Ann Bergeron, a 58-year-old Vancouver Island resident who died this year after taking counterfeit drugs she had ordered from a Web site has made the health officials sit up and take charge of the situation.