What are counterfeit drugs and their risks?

Counterfeit drugs are fake copies of real, legitimate medicines. They may contain an incorrect amount of the active ingredient, the wrong active ingredient, or even no active ingredients at all. Some counterfeit drugs are worthless for treating medical conditions – which can mean an untreated disease may progress – or, worse, they may contain deadly substances that can cause serious harm or even death.  

Counterfeit drugs often look identical to the real things—down to details including a pill’s size, shape, and colorThis makes it very difficult to spot them and allows them to have devastating effects on one's health. 

Counterfeit drugs are often purchased by consumers directly through online sources that seem like legitimate pharmacies but are in fact illegalThese illegal online pharmacies lure consumers with the option of purchasing medications without a prescription, in large quantities, and at great discounts. There are legitimate online pharmacies out there that operate legally. They provide consumers with convenient and safe access to real medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  

According to the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP Global), of the 35,000 active online drug sellers, 96 percent of them are illegal, failing to comply with applicable laws and pharmacy practice standards. To avoid falling victim to the dangers of counterfeit medications, consumers need to know what red flags to look for when shopping for medications online. 

 To stay safe, avoid websites that:   

  1. Do not require a valid prescription to place an order 
  2. Allow consumers to buy prescription medications by simply completing an online questionnaire 
  3. Offer drastically discounted prices 
  4. Do not have a licensed pharmacist available for consultation 
  5. Do not offer contact information including a physical street address 
  6. Offer to ship prescriptions from other countries to the United States 
  7. Are not verified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy’s (NABP) .Pharmacy Verified Websites Program 

For additional resources on how to avoid purchasing counterfeit medication, please click here.

How big is the problem? 

The counterfeit drug problem is global, and countries around the world are working to fight it. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that close to $83 billion worth of counterfeit drugs are sold annually, and one in 10 medical products circulating in developing countries are substandard or fake 

Fortunately, the United States has a closed drug distribution system, which makes counterfeit medications less prevalent in America than in other countries around the world. However, the threat of counterfeit medicines is real in the United States as well as overseas, where counterfeit versions of legitimate drugs have been traced in virtually every treatment area.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, counterfeit drugs laced with fentanyl (an opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine) have been found in 46 states, killing people in 29 of them  

Counterfeit medications don’t just harm individuals. They also have the potential to negatively impact entire communities. For example, a growing concern is the rise of counterfeit antibiotics. These can harm patients by failing to deliver the much-needed treatment, and they can also create increased antibiotic resistance in a community, decreasing the effectiveness of these critical medications.

Drug resistance caused by counterfeit medicines poses a very serious public health threat and intensifies the challenge of fighting infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. In Africa, the proliferation of counterfeit antimalarial drugs results in more than 120,000 deaths each year. In most of these cases, the fraudulent drugs contained weaker amounts of active ingredients or none at all.