Essential thinking

Keeping it real how to tackle counterfeiting a global public health issue

02 May 2015

Ian Lemon

Brown bottle with white cure label

Today, counterfeit products can be found in every country and every sector of the global economy. According to international organisations like the WHO, counterfeiting concerns approximately between 5 and 9% of global trade and 10% of the global pharmaceutical market. It is estimated that 50% of drugs available on the internet are counterfeit, while this figure can reach up to 70% in some African or Eastern European countries. The MHRA also recently announced that UK customs officials have seized counterfeit drugs estimated to be worth £3 million.


Patients and pharmaceutical brands are in danger

Criminals who trade in fake medicines are finding sophisticated ways to infiltrate legitimate supply chains. The high demand for specific drugs works as an incentive for them to take advantage of consumers who cannot afford the cost of authentic products. Price differences fixed by national governments or multinational companies drives parallel trade, which then grows in high correlation with counterfeit trade. According to Interpol, patients across the world put their health, even life, at risk by unknowingly consuming fake drugs or genuine drugs that have been doctored, badly stored or that have expired. On the other side of the spectrum, counterfeit products can also affect a brand’s reputation.

Taking action to tackle the issue


What are the drivers of counterfeit growth and how can private actors like Essentra help international and national regulators tackle this global issue?

As a packaging specialist with more than 30 years of experience on the healthcare market, Essentra has identified four drivers of counterfeit growth: the supply chain complexity; the development of e-commerce; the increasing sophistication of counterfeiters and the lack of coordinated enforcement capacity.

Supply chain complexity

The supply chain for pharmaceuticals is now global. This means increasingly complex supply chains, supported by multiple opportunities for significant cost savings, but also unfortunately increased opportunity for illegal activity. The focus should therefore be on monitoring and maintaining the integrity of the supply chain by paying more attention to details and having proper protocols in place. Tamper evidence technologies introduced in the shipping process can also give a clear indication to the consumer if tampering has occurred.

Development of e-commerce


Many legitimate platforms exist, but the internet has given counterfeiters a direct and easy access to the consumers. As a result, rogue internet pharmacy sites are proliferating and it becomes harder to track the criminals and their products down.

Counterfeit sophistication

The discrepancy between the potential profit from counterfeiting and the relatively low risk of legal punishment encourages criminals to invest their resources and cash flow into making their products look as similar as possible to authentic goods. Working with companies to help them develop cutting edge covert technologies such as infra-red (IR) and ultra-violet (UV) inks, microtext, and microscopic tagging, both invisible and difficult to detect and replicate without specialist detection equipment, is part of the solution.

Lack of coordinated enforcement capacity

There is currently no effective regulation or sufficiently strong enforcement capacity across the industry to tackle counterfeiting. Putting the topic on governments’ agenda and setting it as a top priority for businesses will be essential for the industry to help enforcement agencies develop a coordinated initiative that will make the fight simpler and less time consuming. It is today impossible for governments to monitor all exports and imports of goods; only a joint effort between industry and governments will enable a realistic solution.

Serialisation alone is not a panacea


Serialisation, as promoted in the EU Falsified Medicines Directive, is not a panacea, as coding alone is not authentication. Training and enforcement methods have not yet been addressed. Coding initiatives have focused exclusively on digital methods, with under-exploitation of physical protection opportunities. However, in the pharmaceutical industry, the consumer, whose life could be endangered, should be able to check on their own if a product is counterfeited or authentic. By giving more responsibility to the patient, the industry could help raise awareness on the issue.

Only allowing companies to choose a “layered” combination of physical and digital attributes will deliver enhanced protection. That is why companies such as Essentra, packaging specialist, has developed technologies to integrate security within a product packaging. These solutions include technologies that can allow instant authentication, but also solutions that are more complicated to detect or replicate without specialist detection equipment, as well as tamper-evidence, tear tape and integrated design.