To help the pharmaceutical industry combat drug counterfeiting, IBM is launching an electronic pedigree system Thursday that tracks medications through the supply chain until they reach consumers.

The system employs radio-frequency identification, or RFID tags, which are already used to track packages of drugs, especially ones popular with counterfeiters. Pfizer, for example, uses RFID chips to track packs of its erectile dysfunction drug Viagra, and Purdue Pharma LP has been using them since 2004 to track its pain reliever OxyContin.

IBM's ePedigree system helps drug companies create electronic certificates of authenticity for medications — down to the individual bottle — as they move from manufacturers and distributors to pharmacies and hospitals.

"The whole time, the system is watching what's happening, it records (the drug's) life history," said Chris Clauss, director of sensor information management at IBM Software.

While there is no guarantee that RFID tags will get rid of all counterfeits, he added, "what we can do is raise the bar," and make it substantially more difficult.

Drug companies' prior attempts at fighting fakes — such as holograms, watermarks and the like — were often reproduced within months, to the point where even their brand managers could not tell the difference between the counterfeit and the real thing.

IBM, which first worked with RFID more than 10 years ago, said its ePedigree system will help companies comply with a slew of new regulations, such as ones going into effect in California in 2009.

California's ePedigree law will require that any medication distributed in the state have its life history attached to it — starting at the drug manufacturer until it ends up in the pharmacy.

In recent years, much of the market has focused on the hardware of RFID — how the data is scanned and collected in the chips — said Michael Liard, research director of RFID and Contactless at ABI Research. IBM's ePedigree system, however, focuses on how that information is distributed along the supply chain.

The ePedigree system is useful not just for battling fakes, Clauss said, but for keeping track of expiration dates, batch numbers in case a drug is recalled, and so on.

International Business Machines Corp. is based in Armonk, N.Y.