Unregulated, illegally imported medications have become a big threat to public safety. Over the years, cancer patients have received fake medications containing salt and starch and no active ingredient at all. Counterfeits are reaching liver transplant patients in hospitals, and Schizophrenia, high cholesterol and impotency patients, and heart, antibiotic, hair loss and arthritis patients, as well as those suffering from Parkinson’s and HIV-AIDS. In one case, a foreign-sourced blood thinner was suspected to have resulted in as many as 81 deaths. The fact is counterfeits kill.
Florida is ripe with illicit activity – with online pharmacies becoming an increasingly common source of counterfeits and illegally imported medications. As consumers are flocking to the Internet to find savings and discounts, online scammers see a new avenue to push fake and reimported drugs. These online pharmacies are well-represented in Florida, including a good share of fake pharmacies that have also been engaged in money laundering. In order to ensure that they are accessing legitimate and safe drugs, patients and medical offices need to stay away from online pharmacies.
One White House report noted that Florida has become a hotbed for this activity, stating that:
“Diverted pharmaceuticals are supplied in significant quantities to other regions of the United States by doctors, pharmacists, and pain management clinics based in Florida using fraudulent methods. South Florida HIDTA Task Force operations are successfully targeting these organizations, and long-term undercover operations are beginning to yield significant results with arrests of high level multiple clinic owners and a large number of corrupt physicians.”
When drugs are reimported, they have frequently changed hands up to 7 or 8 times among countries like in China, Viet Nam, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon, all skirting FDA oversight. Even if these drugs turn out to be authentic, since there is no FDA oversight, doctors and patients have no way to check if these drugs were handled properly, contaminated during storage or shipped at unsafe temperatures.
In March of this year, the FDA sent letters, including 159 to Florida medical offices notifying them that they purchased illegal Botox from a supplier that later pleaded guilty to smuggling misbranded drugs into the U.S. These online pharmacies, have websites that appear completely legitimate and they often appear to use U.S. toll-free numbers, although the actual calls may terminate in the Philippines or another foreign country.
If these illegal distributors and counterfeiters are fooling medical offices, fooling patients may not be at all difficult.
Unlike the sale of inferior quality counterfeit designer handbags, for examples, there are real victims here. The sale of illegal manufacturing, distribution and sale of counterfeit and illegally imported medications can have life threatening consequences for patients. In November 2004, fake and toxic injections passed off as Botox caused paralysis to four patients near Oakland Park in November 2004. Counterfeit versions of the blood-thinning drug heparin were responsible for the deaths of 149 Americans in 2007 and 2008. While, just earlier this month federal officials announced they were investigating the deaths of at least 20 individuals suspected of overdosing on black-market oxycodone.
Authorities in Florida need to do more to crack down on illegal distributors and doctors that are operating in clear violation of Florida law. That Florida law prohibits the “manufacture, repackaging, sale, delivery, or holding or offering for sale of any drug, device, or cosmetic that is adulterated or misbranded or has otherwise been rendered unfit for human or animal use.”
As for next steps, it is important that state officials take action to enforce existing laws and to give law enforcement more resources to fight this war. If necessary, the legislature needs to strengthen the laws, where necessary, to protect the public interest.
Patients deserve better.