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Ad sparks debate

Industry collaborates to address the real danger of fake medicines

Pfizer, the health regulators and patients' associations, like Men's Health Forum, Heart UK and the Patients Association, have collaborated in a first-of-its-kind campaign called "Fake medicine, real danger". The ad, in which a man pulls a dead rat from his mouth, is currently playing to 2,600 cinema screens across the UK. The News at Ten, GMTV, the FT, the Telegraph, the Sun and the Mail on Sunday have all picked up on the commercial and the story behind it, and debate on the illegal medicines market has been sparked in Australia, India, Pakistan, Thailand and Malaysia.

Philip Chin, managing director of Langland – the agency that produced the commercial – is delighted with the results.

"Over the years, I have worked on many brands, for many different companies, but this is the first time I have felt the entire industry come together to make a significant effort to do something so important." 

Yet Chin is quick to explain that some people perceive this as just the drug companies trying to protect their revenue. "That's a misunderstanding of the situation," he says.

"These counterfeit medicines can kill. They can lead to drug resistance, therapeutic failure and organ damage.  People are under the impression that the problem is just confined to so-called 'lifestyle' drugs, such as those for erectile dysfunction, but this is not the case. We're now seeing cancer, Alzheimer's and heart medication all making their appearance as fakes on the global Internet market."

Pfizer's medical director, Dr David Gillen, supports this view. "The time has definitely come to issue a clear, unified message to people about the dangers of purchasing medicines from illicit and unregulated sources."

The latest research reveals that in the UK alone, the illegal medicines market is estimated to be worth over £10 million annually. Every year, over 330,000 UK men admit to buying prescription-only medicines from unregulated sources.

The problem, it seems, has a definite male bias, with men more likely than women to buy fake medicines online. Men generally don't like taking their problem to doctors and prefer to deal through the anonymity of the Internet, taking safety for granted.

"I would like to see this problem eradicated in the next few years. It's a big ask, but it's a feasible goal," says Chin.

Not everyone is as confident. Some industry commentators say that for every illegal site the regulatory authorities shut down, another two spring up. The US based Centre for Medicine in the Public Interest predicts counterfeit sales will reach around €55.5 billion globally by 2010. This constitutes a 90 per cent rise in the next five years.

"This was a team effort involving various stakeholders," says Chin. "We'll need to sustain this level of collaboration if we're to defeat the problem."

10th February 2009

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