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Are Your Pills Legit?

When you think about big heists, what comes to mind? Diamonds? Cash stolen from an armored car? Perhaps a priceless painting from a museum?
Prescription drugs turn out to be a growing target for thieves. It’s hard to imagine that a case of pills could be worth more than a wide screen TV, but some medications cost more than gold, ounce for ounce.
Because of the way medicines are distributed in this country, it is surprisingly easy to get stolen goods back into the supply chain. Consider a recent break-in at an Eli Lilly warehouse in Enfield, CT.
Thieves drove off with $75 million worth of prescription pills for depression and schizophrenia. The medications included Cymbalta, Prozac and Zyprexa.
This isn’t the first time crooks have snatched pharmaceuticals. Last year a parked truck containing insulin was left unattended briefly. Over 100,000 vials were stolen and very few were recovered.
No one gets high on insulin. This is not the sort of drug you sell on the streets. But because of lax supervision by state and federal agencies, such drugs can be sold back into the legitimate drug pipeline.
Some of the stolen insulin was dispensed to diabetics. Because the stolen vials had not been stored under refrigeration, some patients experienced problems with blood sugar control.
Pharmaceuticals can pass through many hands before reaching the drugstore or hospital. A medical center might buy a large lot of antibiotics or heartburn medicine at a great price. They may use some but sell what they don’t need to a wholesaler.
That wholesaler may in turn sell portions to various other hospitals, nursing homes, pharmacies or repackagers. With so many people involved and minimal regulation, it becomes possible for stolen or even counterfeit drugs to get back into the market where patients might receive them. Katherine Eban documented this boondoggle in detail in her book, Dangerous Doses.
An article in The Scientist (Feb., 2010) revealed that a Chinese businessman was prepared to sell counterfeit Zyprexa (one of the drugs stolen from the Lilly warehouse), Plavix, Aricept and Cialis to the U.S. market.
He told his contact that he would ship pills from China through South Africa and Brazil so that they would seem less suspicious. In this case, the counterfeiter was caught, but no one knows how many others are operating undetected.
Neither the FDA nor state regulators have the resources to monitor the pharmaceutical supply chain adequately. The FDA advises consumers not to buy prescriptions online but rather to purchase only from state-licensed pharmacies. Unfortunately, this advice, while good, is not quite a guarantee. Even licensed pharmacies might inadvertently purchase counterfeits or poorly stored stolen products from a wholesaler.
What is needed is much stronger documentation of the entire supply chain from factory to pharmacy. The FDA has issued regulations that would require Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tracking. This allows for quick authentication that products are what they claim.
We would like to see track-and-trace technology implemented for generic drugs as well as brand name products. This would add a bit to the cost, but should make our medicines much more secure.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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