Not what the doctor ordered - the growing linkages between fraudulent medicines and organized crime

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Vienna. 12 May 2011. With an annual estimated value of US$ 1.6 billion in Africa and Asia alone, the dangerous and often deadly fraudulent medicine industry has become not only a key health-related concern across the world, but also a growing area of organized crime. With low risks and high returns, the attraction to criminal groups is evident.

Affecting both developed and developing regions, the production and trafficking of these illicit goods is increasingly placing lives at risk across the world as well as spurring criminal operations.

The World Health Organization point toward 3 in 10 pharmaceutical products in the combined African, Asian and Latin American markets as being fake. As much as 50 per cent to 60 per cent of anti-infective medications tested in parts of Asia and Africa have been found to have active ingredients outside of acceptable limits.

This crime is however not limited to the developing world. Despite lower detected cases of fraudulent medicines in developed countries, the European Customs Union in 2008 alone detected over 3,200 attempts to import fake medicines, involving almost 9 million items.

This growing concern between counterfeit medicines and the criminal groups expanding this trade was reflected in last month's Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Vienna. Delegates to the meeting requested UNODC, in close collaboration with other UN bodies and international organisations such as the World Health Organization, World Customs Organization and INTERPOL, to assist countries in responding to this growing threat, something which Executive Director Yury Fedotov has called for increased attention to be given to: "Fraudulent medicines offer organized criminal groups a high return commodity with relatively low risks, ultimately at the expense of the health of unsuspecting people. These counterfeit goods indiscriminately kill, depriving the poorest of lifesaving medicines and leading to countless deaths"

Beyond the direct impact on the victims, substandard medicines can, amongst others, also fuel microbial resistance. Health experts have warned that each under-medicated patient becomes an evolutionary vector though which "superbugs" can develop, posing a global threat to public health.

With the globalization of legitimate business and the free movement of goods across borders, organized criminal networks are increasingly taking advantage of licit channels to move fraudulent medicines and distribute them in regions with weak legal and regulatory frameworks and inefficient justice systems. In addition to traditional smuggling methods, illicit pharmacies use the internet and courier services to sell fraudulent medicines, an evident challenge to law enforcement in the digital age.

For further information please contact:

Kevin Town, Associate Public Information Officer: UNODC

T: (+43-1) 26060-5575 | M: (+43-699) 1459-5575 | E:{at}


Alun Jones, Chief of Communication and Advocacy: UNODC

T: (+43-1) 26060-5726 | M: (+43-699) 1459-5726 | E: alun.jones{at}