The FDA says the number of counterfeit drugs and medicines on the market has quadrupled in the U.S. The fakes -- many manufactured overseas and distributed by organized crime rings -- are hard to detect.
Dangerous Fake Drugs Turning Up On Drugstore Shelves
JOHN SEIGENTHALER, anchor:
Prescription drugs are big business in this country. And for consumers navigating both access and cost, it can be quite daunting. Add to that now the growing number of counterfeit drugs entering the country, and as NBC's Ron Allen reports, there is real potential for deadly consequences.
RON ALLEN reporting:
Eighteen-year-old Tim Fagan thought an emergency liver transplant would cure his problems. Instead, his health took a turn for the worse.
Mr. TIM FAGAN: I would just wake up in the middle of the night, out of a sound sleep, in just complete pain and agony.
ALLEN: It took two months to figure out that somewhere in the maze of drug wholesalers, re-packagers and retailers, a counterfeit drug made its way to Tim, one twentieth of a dose he needed.
Ms. JEANE FAGAN (Mother): We are just a middle-class family with, you know, a son that takes medication. And if it could happen to us, it could--it could literally happen to anyone.
ALLEN: While most drugs are safe, investigations of criminals making and selling sophisticated fakes have quadrupled in recent years.
Mr. McCLELLAN (Food and Drug Administration Commissioner): We're seeing organized criminal activities that are well-financed and often span across multiple countries, multiple states in the United States.
ALLEN: In May, the FDA recalled some 200,000 bottles of cholesterol-lowering Lipitor when fakes were discovered in warehouses and drugstores. In Florida this summer, agents busted several rings, peddling phony medications, one worth $54 million. Stopping the flow of fake prescription drugs is difficult for a couple of reasons. The complex distribution system is easily exploited. And the drugs themselves can be hard to detect, often making investigators feel as though they're looking for a needle in a haystack.
ALLEN: At New York's JFK Airport, inspectors search thousands of suspicious packages from overseas, the source of many counterfeits, plastic bags full of loose pills, boxes packed with hard-to-identify medicines, which could be fakes.
Mr. TOM McGINNIS (Food and Drug Administration Director of Pharmacy
Affairs): All of this stuff is questionable. We don't know the pedigree of this stuff, where it's coming from, how it was manufactured.
ALLEN: The FDA is studying high-tech tracking devices, tiny radio transmitters for medicine vials, bar codes embedded on tablets to help safeguard against counterfeiting.
Mr. FAGAN: It's not like it's a counterfeit bill or a counterfeit CD.
This is counterfeit medication. I'm helpless. I had no idea what was going to happen.
ALLEN: Well on the road to recovery, Tim takes a new medication but inspects each dose, making sure it's not a fake. Ron Allen, NBC News, New York.
Americans spend more on prescription drugs — average costs are about $1,000 per person per year — than anyone else in the world. It’s true that they take a lot of pills.