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Swiss sound alarm over fake drug imports

Swissmedic says that some claims about products, such as this slimming one, are simply not true Swissmedic

Imports of illegal medicines into Switzerland jumped by 75 per cent in the first half of this year – a situation causing concern among health officials.

This content was published on July 28, 2010 - 21:30

Products such as bogus Viagra remain the most popular, but there has also been a peak in the orders of slimming products, some of which are dangerous.

The Swiss Agency for Therapeutic Products (Swissmedic) said on Wednesday that in the first six months of the year it received reports of 992 suspicious, potentially illegal imports of medicinal products from the Federal Customs authorities. Most were prescription-only drugs.

This is an 75 per cent increase on the same period in 2009.

“This is a global development which is worrying because these illegal and counterfeit medicines put the health of those who order them in danger,” Ruth Mosimann, head of control of illegal medicines at Swissmedic, told swissinfo.ch.

Last year alone, imports of fake drugs grew by 68 per cent. Around 50,000 such products are estimated to reach the country annually.

“It is a trend. Ever more spam is sent out by these illegal websites, so it’s the offer which is somehow causing increased demand. Also Swiss Customs are more aware of the issue so a lot is discovered through their good work,” Mosimann said.

Saving money?

Saving money or even embarrassment are some of the main motivations for buying online. However, Mosimann is surprised at some of the other reasons given.

“We still have reactions from people from whom we have confiscated material who say they are surprised that the product was dangerous, and say they simply didn’t know and just saw that it was cheaper and a good product,” Mosimann explained.

“Secondly, they are often surprised that it is forbidden. The Swiss law was created such that it is forbidden to import big amounts of medicines from abroad to protect people from suspicious material.”

Over the past six months this year there has been a sharp increase in particular of slimming products imports, especially of LiDa Daidaihua, for which Swissmedic has already issued a warning.

The agency says that instead of being purely herbal, as the seller’s attractive website claims, the product contains a non-declared, prescription-only substance called Sibutramine, which is not allowed in Switzerland and the European Union.

This can cause side effects like a racing heart and increased blood pressure, says Mosimann, and could even be life-threatening for some people with heart problems. “In addition, it is overdosed in the product,” she added.

Slippery criminals

The expert says that it is really hard for the authorities to catch the criminals behind illegal medicines websites.

Swissmedic is represented in international groups. In April this year, for example, it signed up to the Medicrime convention, the first international instrument to criminalise the faking of medical products and similar activities.

There have been some successes when working with other countries. Swiss and Austrian officials cooperated to catch an Austrian doctor signing online prescriptions – a practice that is strictly illegal – after the documents were discovered in parcels coming into Switzerland. The doctor was prosecuted and the associated website closed down.

As for what else can be done, greater penalties for offenders would also help, added Mosimann. This would apply to both Switzerland and abroad.

Currently the most popular country of origin for seized illegal medicines is India, making up 45 per cent.

Medical concerns

Also worried by the figures is Gert Printzen, a doctor at Lucerne Cantonal Hospital and head of medications at the Swiss Medical Association.

“This makes me concerned as a doctor that people prefer the easy way of pressing a button and ordering medical stuff for home supply, that they believe the advertisements without knowing the consequences,” he told swissinfo.ch.

Printzen advises people to see medical personnel so they can receive a whole package of treatment that could include changes to their diet and lifestyle as well as the necessary medicines.

He added that the people behind the fake products, such as slimming aids, were just selling dreams. “It’s very dangerous and not fair because it abuses people who believe in them [the products] because of their need for help.”

“Maybe it’s a little kick to the doctors that we should maybe take lifestyle problems more seriously than we do now.”

Isobel Leybold-Johnson, swissinfo.ch

Products

Most frequently seized product categories:

Erectile stimulants: 31%

Slimming products: 26%

Prescription-only hair growth products: 6%

Muscle-building products: 5%

Potentially addictive medicines, sleeping pills: 5%

(Source: Swissmedic)

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Countries of origin

Origin of medicinal products seized by Swiss customs:

India: 45%

Western Europe (Germany, Britain, Greece, etc.): 35%

Asia, without India (Thailand, China, Pakistan, etc.): 6%

Tropical island states (Vanuatu, Seychelles): 3%

Eastern Europe: 3%

(Source: Swissmedic)

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