Counterfeit medicines

A counterfeit medicine is an illegally manufactured medicinal product. Its identification data has been purposefully and deceptively misrepresented. Such identification data include package labelling and properties along with the name and composition of the medicine complete with all of its ingredients. The information concerning the origin of the medicine is false as well.

How can a counterfeit medicine be recognised?

A counterfeit medicine may be nearly impossible to recognise. A user will not be able to identify a counterfeit medicine by its appearance. Even experts often need laboratory tests in order to recognise a counterfeit medicine.

Criminals are constantly developing ways of circumventing the measures developed to combat counterfeit medicines. Some of the identified counterfeit medicines have been skilfully prepared. The best way to avoid counterfeit medicines is to purchase medicines from a pharmacy. This way, you can be assured that their safety, efficacy and quality has been ensured by regulatory means. Legitimate medicinal products from their original manufacturers are not sold on the Internet at bargain prices.

Keep in mind that a counterfeit medicine does not necessarily

  • have unusual taste, smell or colour
  • look like poorly manufactured
  • come in a low-quality package
  • come in a packaging that has spelling mistakes.

What harm do counterfeit medicines do?

A counterfeit medicine always involves a health risk. The active substances or other ingredients of a counterfeit product may be wrong, ineffective or even dangerous. At its very worst, a counterfeit medicine can be fatal to the user.

Which medicines are counterfeited?

All kinds of medicinal products – from expensive anticancer medicines to cheap painkillers – have been counterfeited. Counterfeit antimalarials and antibiotics are most frequently reported around the world. In developed countries, the most frequently encountered counterfeits are those of ‘lifestyle medicines’, such as erectile dysfunction and weight loss medicines. Recently, an increasingly larger number of counterfeit life-saving medicines, such as anticancer and cardiovascular medicines, has been identified as well.

A preparation that is sold as a nutritional supplement can also be counterfeit. The preparation can be claimed to contain ingredients found from nature, but the efficacy of the preparation may in fact be based on a medicinal substance that is not indicated in the package labelling. For example, some of the preparations for slimming purposes have been found to contain a medicinal substance that has been withdrawn from the legal market because of its adverse effects. 

How can I protect against counterfeit medicines?

The best way to avoid counterfeits is to purchase medicines through a legitimate distribution channel, i.e., from a pharmacy. When you buy medicines abroad, it is advisable to first ensure that the supplier is duly authorised to engage in the retail of medicinal products in the country of purchase. When travelling abroad, it is advisable to purchase the medicines you need beforehand in Finland.

Do not buy medicinal products from illegal online stores. A legitimate Finnish online pharmacy can be identified by the pan-European logo that serves as a link to the list of legitimate online pharmacies (in Finnish) maintained by Fimea.

Ordering medicines from an illegal online shop not only poses a risk to your health but is also a criminal offence associated with the illegal import of medicines. The importer or buyer of the medicine is solely responsible for any risks involved in illegal medicine trade.

Why are medicines counterfeited?

Illicit trade in medicines is associated with criminal activities, such as trafficking of drugs and doping substances. Counterfeiting medicines is financially profitable business with a relatively low risk of being apprehended. The operations are organised in the same way as international drugs trafficking. The intermediaries of counterfeit medicines trade have spread throughout the world, which makes it difficult to trace them. Demand feeds the trade in illicit medicines and the spreading of counterfeits. Any purchase of counterfeit medicines lends support to criminal activities.

Where are counterfeit medicines found?

Occurrences of counterfeit medicines are constantly reported all over the world. In developed countries (such as the EU Member States, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the United States), the volume of counterfeit medicines is relatively low. In developing countries, the majority of the medicines on the market may be counterfeits. Especially worrying is the fact that counterfeit medicines have found their way to legitimate distribution channels, i.e. pharmaceutical wholesalers and pharmacies. The number of such occurrences has increased over the past few years in developed countries and the EU as well.

In 2014, counterfeit medicines were found in the legal medicines distribution chain in several European countries, including Finland. These are cases where stolen, originally genuine medicines pass from criminals back to the legal distribution system.

In Finland, counterfeits are encountered in medicines that are ordered from the Internet or brought to Finland by travellers. The number of confiscations by the Customs has increased from year to year.

How do the authorities combat the trade in counterfeit medicines?

The problems related to counterfeit medicines will not be resolved by closing down websites or by passing more stringent import regulations. One of the principal means is to raise public awareness of the safety risks associated with counterfeit medicines.

A variety of ways are used to combat the trade in counterfeit medicines. Different authorities engage in practical cooperation both in Finland and internationally. The crime associated with counterfeit medicines is also combated by means of a General Agreement of the Council of Europe. The European Union has developed its legislation to further safeguard the legitimate manufacture and distribution chain of pharmaceutical products against counterfeit medicines.

The European Union has developed its legislation to further protect the legitimate manufacture and distribution chain of pharmaceutical products against counterfeit medicines. July 2015 saw the launch of an EU-wide logo that consumers can click to verify that an online pharmacy is legitimate. The common logo promotes the safe online sale of medicines.

In the beginning of 2019, new safety features will be added on the packages of prescription medicines throughout Europe. The safety markings will enable the consumer to verify that the packages are genuine and unopened.