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Counterfeit drugs trade is a spreading danger

Counterfeit drugs trade is a spreading danger
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First Published: Thu, Jul 10 2008. 10 43 PM IST

Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor
Updated: Thu, Jul 10 2008. 10 43 PM IST
We’ve all received those ubiquitous emails, though mercifully, most these days are caught by our spam filters. Emails offering expensive drugs at hard-to-beat prices are everywhere—drugs against cholesterol, blood pressure, arthritis and baldness, always bearing familiar brand names such as Lipitor, Celebrex and, inevitably, Viagra.
Shashi Tharoor
The wiser among us delete them instantly. But some people are taken in. Those who can’t afford to pay the full price or who simply imagine that they can save a few bucks by ordering these medicines from Internet hawkers.
The results are often calamitous. Sometimes the paid-for drugs never arrive. Sometimes they do, and that can be worse. They’re fakes, in some cases made of little more than powdered cement, artfully disguised to look like the real thing. At best, they will be of no medical benefit whatsoever. At worst, they can kill you.
Counterfeit drugs are a multibillion-dollar industry. The market is said to be worth over $60 billion (Rs2.54 trillion) a year, up 25% from three years ago and expected to rise to $100 billion by 2010.
Like counterfeit watches, fake perfumes, imitation designer clothing and pirated films, fake medicines thrive in a world where people are all too ready to bend the rules.
But what isn’t as well known is how these merchants of the meretricious misuse the international trade system to pursue their goals.
Places such as Hong Kong and Dubai, because of their open trade policies, free ports and absence of import and export fees, have become particular targets.
Dubai attracts counterfeiters for the same reason that it attracts honest traders: Its strategic location on the Gulf makes Dubai ideal for the movement of goods between Asia, Europe and Africa.
The fake drug merchants have not been slow to catch on. Records show that nearly one-third of all counterfeit drugs confiscated in Europe last year came from—which really means through—the United Arab Emirates.
The intellectual property unit of the Dubai customs authority destroyed 293 tonnes of counterfeit products in the first five months of this year alone.
But there’s also a more sinister reason why free trade zones appeal to counterfeiters. They use such zones to conceal the real origin of a drug, especially by moving the products from one zone to another or by relabelling fake or adulterated goods to make them look as if they came from more legitimate sources.
The supply chain runs from counterfeit drugs manufacturers in China through Hong Kong onward to the UAE, Britain and the Bahamas, ultimately leading to Internet pharmacies whose American customers believe they’re buying medicines from Canada.
Fake booze is another problem. Many Indians remember the bad old days when the country was the world’s largest market for empty Johnnie Walker bottles, which smugglers filled with bootleg whiskey and sold as the real thing.
But if that wasn’t bad enough, today almost half of all alcoholic spirits sold in Russia are counterfeit, killing thousands of Russians every year.
Not all fakes kill, of course, and counterfeiting of other goods often escapes censure because people tend to think it doesn’t matter as much.
What’s the harm if we can “beat the system” and enjoy something without really paying for it? What does it matter if we get something that others think is genuine and only we know the difference?
The short answer is that it does—not just because theft is theft, whether it is of intellectual property or of somebody’s wallet. It matters because fakery stifles innovation, depriving the world of the creativity that is our key source ofprogress.
Those who buy fake goods are stealing from creative risk-takers and supporting thieves who profit from the ingenuity and hard work of others.
Wearing a fake watch may not harm you directly in the way that consuming a fake drug might, but it diminishes you by diluting the possibilities of the world in whichyou live.
It is true that almost everything can be faked. Thanks to advances in digital technology, 3-D laser scanners and counterfeiting software, there is now little that cannot be quickly and cheaply reproduced and sold around the world as the genuine article.
The result is that one in 10 of all products sold worldwide is now believed to be counterfeit. But in a world where many things are not as they seem, many people put a premium on quality and authenticity.
It’s better to wear a genuine Swatch than a fake Cartier because the latter puts you in the position of pretending to have something you don’t, which is as bad as pretending to be someone you’re not.
It’s up to ordinary citizens to ensure that the fakes don’t prevail. Where imagination is usurped by imitation, noone wins.
A non-profit group called the Authentics Foundation has been running a “Fakes Cost More” campaign in Europe recently. Maybe they should bring it to Dubai too.
Shashi Tharoor is the author, most recently, of TheElephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone—Reflections on India: the Emerging 21st-Century Power, and chairman of Dubai-based Afras Ventures.
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First Published: Thu, Jul 10 2008. 10 43 PM IST