This article is the first of a three part series on counterfeit goods in Canada.
TORONTO—Counterfeiters have moved beyond knock-off Rolexs and fake Louis Vuitton handbags to more ambitious—and dangerous—territory: medical drugs and electronics.
Lorne Lipkus, an attorney and the chair of the Canadian Anti-Counterfeiting Network’s Education and Training Committee, says that when he first started dealing with anti-counterfeit in the 1980s, “it was really only cheap apparel and luxury goods.”
Today, he sees counterfeit branching into extension cords, Christmas lights, hair irons, Bluetooth headsets, and batteries—potentially dangerous items that don’t seem like obvious counterfeit targets.
You name it, you can counterfeit it now.
— Chris Gray, Canadian Intellectual Property Council
The counterfeiting of drugs also seems to have increased.
A June report from the Canadian Intellectual Property Council, a coalition of companies at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, estimates that 30 percent of seized counterfeits pose a risk to health and safety. Pharmaceutical counterfeit now makes up 7 percent of products seized, up from 4 percent in 2011.
An RCMP report confirms a rise in potentially dangerous counterfeit goods.
According to the report, the total volume of counterfeits rose from $24 million worth of goods seized in 2010 to $67 million in 2011, while the percentage of seized counterfeit items considered dangerous increased from 21.8 percent in 2010 to 25.8 percent in 2011.
Counterfeit Drugs Abundant Online
In regards to pharmaceutical counterfeit, Dr. Jeff Poston, executive director of the Canadian Pharmacists Association, says that while it is growing worldwide, he has not seen a significant increase in Canada.
“I think you have to distinguish product purchase from the Internet and day-to-day pharmacy operations,” he says. For the latter, the Canadian supply chain “has been relatively secure.”
The Internet is another matter. “It’s estimated that about 50 percent of drug products that are available over the Internet are counterfeit,” Poston says.
That number could be as high as 80 percent for lifestyle enhancement drugs such as Viagra, he adds.
Chris Gray, director of the Canadian Intellectual Property Council, agrees that most counterfeit drugs come from online pharmacies. Nonetheless, he worries that they are starting to trickle into stores.
“If you can find batteries and other things counterfeited in legitimate stores, at some point there’s going to be counterfeit drugs coming in,” he says.
Counterfeit electrical products can result in house fires and exploding batteries, and counterfeit medicine can contain toxic ingredients.
Corporal Judith Falbo from the Kitchener detachment of the RCMP says some counterfeit drugs have leaked into brick-and-mortar stores, including a case in Hamilton, Ont., that the RCMP investigated several years back.
However, brick-and-mortar pharmacies are still generally a good option.
“Most pharmacists are reputable people that care about their patients and care about their pharmacy,” Falbo says, adding there are “very strict” regulations for how pharmacies get their products.
Meanwhile, Internet counterfeiters remain anonymous, she says. They create a professional-looking website to lure customers, sometimes mimicking reputable pharmacies, and are difficult for law enforcement to track down.
Gray says there is some ignorance among consumers regarding counterfeit. “Maybe some people can’t afford medicine, so they go online and look for a better deal, not really realizing that potentially it’s counterfeit.”
Five to ten years ago, he himself did not realize that counterfeiting had reached beyond luxury goods into potentially dangerous items like medicine or batteries.
“You name it, you can counterfeit it now,” he says.
Embarrassment prompts some consumers to buy lifestyle enhancement drugs online rather than see a pharmacist, and then keep silent if they are sold counterfeits that don’t work, says Falbo.
Falbo says the risk with counterfeit medicine is that “you don’t know what you’re getting.” The drug could have dangerous additives, stipulate the wrong dosage, or even contain no medicinal ingredients at all, she says.
“Counterfeiters don’t care about anything but making money—they don’t care if they kill you with an overdose, or if they kill you with nothing,” Falbo says.
People who need prescription medicine should be getting them from their community pharmacy.
— Dr. Jeff Poston, Canadian Pharmacists Association
In 2006, 57-year-old Marcia Bergeron died from counterfeit medicine purchased on the Internet that contained uranium and lead, a B.C. coroner found.
Counterfeit electrical products can result in house fires and exploding batteries, and counterfeit medicine can contain toxic ingredients, says Falbo.
Avoid The Internet
“People who need prescription medicine should be getting them from their community pharmacy,” says Poston. He counsels people to ask their pharmacist about cheaper alternatives should affordability be an issue.
Falbo also advises consumers not to purchase medical products from the Internet, unless the website is operated by a trusted local pharmacy.
Consumers should be wary of counterfeiters mimicking those websites, however.
If consumers find that the medication isn’t working properly, they should take it back to their pharmacist or doctor to talk about the problem, Falbo says.
She encourages people to go to the RCMP or their local police if they think they have purchased a counterfeit item related to health and safety.
Gray says the best defence against dangerous counterfeit is awareness. “If you’re buying eight batteries for $2 at the dollar store, and they say Duracell on them, I think your common sense has to kick in.”
On the legislative side, Gray says counterfeits should be given heavier fines and maybe jail time for creating goods that could hurt Canadians.
He says selling drugs containing lead or road paint “has to be treated the same as a criminal offence.”
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