The fight against medicine counterfeiting: from the origins to the present day

1. The origins of counterfeiting and its rapid spread

It all started with idea theft. Since the beginning of time inventors have been copied. Others steal their ideas to exploit them commercially. This is the very meaning of the word “counterfeit”, which comes from the Latin contrefacere meaning “to imitate”.

The law. Legally, “counterfeiting is a means by which the counterfeiter creates confusion between the original product and the counterfeit product at the expense of the party who owns the intellectual property rights”[1].

The question of complicity. The question arises as to whether buyers/consumers are complicit in purchasing counterfeit products. As far as counterfeit medicines are concerned, the end consumer is always a victim, never an accomplice. Who would want to consume a product that at best is ineffective and in the worst case scenario a health risk?

Counterfeiting, an age-old crime

A document dating back to the 2nd century BC talks of an illiterate Gallic winemaker who attempted to pass his wine off as a fine Italian vintage. He copied the letters that traders would inscribe on the stoppers of amphorae containing the wine. His work was so clumsy, however, that he was soon caught out. The stopper can be seen today in the counterfeiting museum in Paris’ 16th arrondissement.

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2. The emergence of international political awareness

Vital coordination. The fight against counterfeit medicines requires joint efforts both nationally (through customs authorities, the police or justice system) and internationally.

Awareness. The boom in this parallel market in developing countries, and its consequences on the health of consumers and the economy has raised the awareness of policy makers, health professionals and the entire international community.

Market controls. They all felt the urgency to develop an international network to control and monitor the entire pharmaceutical circuit from the design phase to market distribution.

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3. Geopolitical and sociological analysis of developments

Counterfeiting of health products has become a real public health issue on a global scale, causing tens of thousands of deaths each year.

  • Sales of counterfeit medicines reached $75 billion in 2010, an increase of 90% since 2005 (WHO data).
  • According to the WCO, 140 countries are affected by counterfeit products.
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4. The history of counterfeiting: key dates

  • 2nd century BC,first proven case of counterfeiting: a Gallic winemaker attempts to pass off his wine for outstanding vintage.
  • In 40 AD, Dioscorides, a Greek physician and botanist, gives advice to distinguish between genuine and counterfeit medicines.
  • In the 15th century, the apothecary in Paris becomes a profession in itself.
  • In the 17th century, apothecaries are implicated in cases of adulterated medicines.
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[1] Private law dictionary – Serge Braudo.

[2] In 1777, following a decree by Louis XVI replacing the Apothecary Garden with the Pharmaceutical College, apothecaries became known as pharmacists and had the exclusive responsibility of preparing remedies.

[3] In 1992, a significant number of WHO Member States, Interpol, the World Customs Organization, the International Narcotics Control Board, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations, the International Organization of Consumers Unions and the International Pharmaceutical Federation approved this definition.