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There's no faking it...

Medical education case study: raising awareness of buying prescription-only drugs online

In a concerted effort to protect patient safety, European customs authorities announced late in 2008 that in just eight weeks they had uncovered more than 34m illegal medicines, including 2.2m counterfeit tablets at Brussels airport.

The unified MEDI-FAKE initiative spanned 27 member states, intercepting batches of fake medicines likely bound for patients through unregulated internet supply.

The entire discovery, including a single consignment of 400,000 fake drugs at Le Havre, is real evidence of a counterfeiting explosion (500,000 fake medicines were seized in 2005) and indicates the scale of emerging danger to patients.

The European Alliance for Access to Safe Medicines (EAASM) was established in 2007 to enhance and protect patient safety from this threat, engaging a diverse range of international stakeholders in the process. The Counterfeiting Superhighway report, developed by Euro RSCG Life Medicom for the EAASM, was one key output and a stake in the ground for European patient safety.


A selection of images showing false medicine scares in the media
Protecting patients - the EAASM engaged both international media and policy makers


• Raise consumer awareness of the dangers inherent in purchasing prescription-only medicines via the internet
• Engage in, and drive the debate among key stakeholders with the jurisdiction to tackle the promotion, distribution and availability of fake medicines
• Position the (then relatively new) EAASM as an expert organisation and patient safety champion, through targeted media outreach.

Counterfeiting Superhighway began with desk research of more than 100 internet pharmacies. The list was then reduced to focus on those most likely to be used by consumers – and vitally European patients in search of online medications. The next  step was the purchase by Medicom of 36 prescription-only medicines via the internet; acquired without any prescriptions.

Product analysis:
The drugs bought online were opened and examined by key stakeholders and security experts  invited to a special EAASM meeting in London. Attendees included members from pharma and pharmacy, mail courier companies, patient groups, police officers, medicine security experts and government representatives.

The legitimacy of those medicines visibly unidentifiable as fake (or otherwise) was assessed by subsequent chemical analysis by the licensed manufacturer. Overall, 62 per cent of the medicines ordered online were counterfeit or substandard.

Report launch
The resulting Counterfeiting Superhighway report was created for a single purpose: to prove, emphatically, the dangers inherent in purchasing prescription-only medicines via the internet. Compiled and written by Medicom for the EAASM, it defines the scale of criminal activity in this area, providing a platform for powerful media outreach and effective stakeholder engagement.

EAASM Chair Jim Thomson supported the launch, as a keynote speaker, at two carefully selected high-profile events: the 4th Global Forum on Pharmaceutical AntiCounterfeiting in Washington (the largest such conference worldwide); and the
3rd Annual Pharmaceutical Anti-Counterfeiting Conference in London (one of Europe's foremost events on the topic).

The EAASM actively engaged key stakeholders directly at both events, and through follow-up face-to-face meetings.

Medicom had secured speaker slots and free stand space at the two meetings, whose impressive scale and stature added to the credibility, momentum and impact of the Counterfeiting Superhighway campaign.

With additional support from the agency's in-house international media resource, the EAASM then began what was to be a hugely effective media campaign on the dangers to patients of buying (counterfeit) medicines online.

Following the US launch of the report in early June 2008, in total some 90 items of consumer and trade coverage were noted   in the US media, reaching approximately 630,000 people (primarily Washington and New York) which was just the start, as the number is still growing.

The day after the launch, more than 400 consumer news items followed across Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK; including coverage from Sky News, Le Figaro, El Mundo, the Telegraph, Le Monde, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express and De Tijd, reaching up to around 13,340,000 readers. Press packs were available in five European languages.

In the six months post-launch, the EAASM gained additional coverage in more than 40 European news stories, including interviews for Chair  Jim Thomson on the UK's GMTV, BBC Radio 4, Radio 5Live. Medicom also secured interviews with BBC Radio and Belgian Radio for Bill Newton Dunn MEP (2008), one of several stakeholders engaged through the Counterfeiting Superhighway project. Mr Newton Dunn also facilitated the presentation of the report to European Parliament.

The chain reaction (from the initial research and analysis, the launch of he report and subsequent international media coverage) not only enhanced consumer awareness of the real threats from prescription medicines bought online without authorisation, but ultimately engaged a wealth of additional stakeholders with the EAASM as a champion for patient safety in Europe.

From this enhanced position, in November 2009 the EAASM launched its latest report: Packaging Patient Protection – a set of workable recommendations designed to help European policy-makers develop and tailor new legislation effectively to protect patient safety in Europe.


Case study details

Client: EAASM
Agency: Euro RSCG Life Medicom
Campaign: Counterfeiting Superhighway
Timescale: 2008 to 2009

22nd April 2010


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