Not convinced that Americans are prepared to slow down in their pursuit of buying cheaper merchandise online, a coalition of government officials and private industry executives met at the White House Tuesday to address the broad range of problems associated with the sales of counterfeit products.
The panel discussion largely focused on concerns that bogus prescription drugs, which one official called "a growing global menace," are too easily ending up inside the pill bottles that people reach for each day.
Victoria Espinel, the Obama administration's intellectual property czar, estimated that 1/6 of all Americans who bought drugs online did so without a prescription. Given the proliferation of illicit internet operations, some of those who bought their drugs online undoubtedly did so with shady dealers. "Of the people who had ordered medications online without a doctor's prescription, two-thirds said that doing so was not safe at all," Espinel said citing a survey from the Partnership at Drugfree.org.
"We need to convince people that counterfeiting spells trouble for America, pure and simple," said John Morton, Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He added that the challenge for government officials is to change the public's attitude towards the problem and that people should not view it as "some abstract concern for wealthy corporate elites."
Forum participants conceded that part of the messaging problem stems from the government's inability to better quantify the scope of the problem. Though most agreed that illicit internet drug operations are on the rise and Espinel noted a National Association of Boards of Pharmacy estimate that the counterfeit drug market will reach $75 billion this year.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano described significant increases in counterfeit busts by ICE and Customs and Border Patrol. She called it a "high profit-low risk crime" that is often used to fund other illegal activities.
A Pfizer executive noted how the illegal operations are becoming more sophisticated in their packaging. He showed side-by-side photographs of two nearly identical pills-one legitimate and the other bogus. The confiscated copycat was made of substances including roach powder, paint and floor wax.
Espinel used the forum to announce a new non-profit venture joined by 11 companies, including Google, Microsoft, Pay Pal and three major credit card issuers, to combine efforts against the harms of counterfeit goods.
"This group of companies has taken an extraordinary and unprecedented step to combat illegal online pharmacies," Espinel said. "We believe this will have a rapid and dramatic effect on illegal online pharmacies. This will change the rules of the road and make clear that legitimate companies will not interact with criminal actors and that the online world is not a safe haven for their reprehensible activities."
"When fake goods find their way into our nation's marketplaces, the health and safety of our people can be severely compromised," Attorney General Eric Holder told the group of industry executives and others dedicated to protecting intellectual property. Holder also used the occasion to focus attention on the need to remind consumers about the dangers of shopping online.
But the problem of fake drugs also extends to legitimate pharmacies. University of San Francisco music professor Rick Roberts told the audience how he unwittingly bought bogus drugs from his local chain drug store. He said the drug-which he had previously used without problem--suddenly caused a terrible burning sensation. He asked his pharmacist about the situation and was told, "you may have gotten the fake stuff."
It turned out that multiple batches of cooked-up powder disguised as medication infiltrated the legitimate supply chain and wasn't discovered until the fake meds reached the consumer.
For Roberts, the concern was twofold: he went six weeks without taking the legitimate medicine he needed while also injecting his body with an unknown substance.
"We've created an environment where it's a lot easier and more productive to sell prescription drugs online and to sell crack or heroin on the street," observed Carmine Catizone, president of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacies. His advice to consumers is quite simple but serious, "if it looks different, if it feels different, go back to your pharmacist talked to him about it."
Pfizer's John Clark said that advice also applies to doctors who he says aren't diligent enough in following up with their patients who complain about nonperforming drugs. He said he was amazed by how many doctors wouldn't think to ask their patients where they purchased their prescriptions.