When “Natural” is Just a Word: Dietary Supplements Aren’t Always What They Seem

In August 2007, Chinese national Kevin Xu was charged with distributing counterfeit and misbranded pharmaceuticals in the United States via the Internet.1The investigation of his crimes and his arrest in the U.S. came on the heels of one of the largest counterfeit drug recalls ever conducted in the United Kingdom.2 All told, 2 million doses of counterfeit medications used to treat heart disease, prostate cancer, and mental illness were introduced into the United Kingdom’s secure supply chain. Almost 700,000 doses of these life-saving medications are as yet unaccounted for.3

Kevin Xu’s arrest happened when he began to set up shop in the United States. US authorities, warned of Mr. Xu’s activities in the UK, put him under surveillance and were able to stop him before he sold many counterfeit drugs in the United States. Kevin Xu was not the only drug counterfeiter doing business here, however. In the last year, a pair of New Zealanders4, two Israelis5, and a well-known pioneer in the Canadian fake online pharmacy business6 have all been prosecuted for selling misbranded/counterfeit drugs to US consumers via websites set up specifically to offer these fake drugs for sale.

Drug counterfeiting is a lucrative business7 and the United States is the world’s largest market8 for prescription drug sales. According to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy9, 97% of all online pharmacies are not operating within US laws and regulations. In Maine, where 1 in 4 residents 10 suffer some form of heart disease, this means that a Maine heart disease sufferer has just a 3% chance of finding a legitimate online pharmacy when searching for the medication on the Internet.

The dangers inherent in purchasing medication from unknown sources are all too clearly illustrated by the tragic story of Marcia Bergeron.11 Ms. Bergeron was a resident of a remote Canadian island and as such, did most of her shopping online. What she did not know was that the online pharmacy she was purchasing her medication from was actually selling her dangerous counterfeits. Ms. Bergeron died on December 6, 2006 of acute heavy metal toxicity as a direct result of the fake pills she took.

Marcia Bergeron’s case is just one instance of counterfeit drugs appearing in Canada. As reported in Dr. Bryan Liang’s 2006 paper, Fade To Black: Importation and Counterfeit Drugs, “Canada has not been immune to counterfeits and deaths associated with such drugs; coroners, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Ontario College of Pharmacists are currently investigating several deaths associated with imported counterfeit cardiac drugs sold from a pharmacy there and have brought charges against another pharmacist for selling fake drugs.”12

1. ICE News Release, April 23, 2010, “Convicted counterfeit pharmaceutical distributor re-sentenced.”

2. Partnership For Safe Medicines Counterfeit Drug Incident Encyclopedia, “Thousands Of Fake Pills Removed From Uk Pharmacies,” http://www.safemedicines.org/thousands-of-fake-pills-removed-from-uk-pharmacies/.

3. Partnership for Safe Medicines, April 8, 2011, “Uk Counterfeit Cancer Drug Distributor Sentenced To Eight Years,” http://www.safemedicines.org/2011/04/uk-counterfeit-drug-distributor-sentenced-to-eight-years-209/.

4. Partnership For Safe Medicines Counterfeit Drug Incident Encyclopedia, July 19, 2012, “New Zealand Citizen Pleads Guilty In Us Counterfeit Drug Case,” http://www.safemedicines.org/2012/07/new-zealand-citizen-pleads-guilty-in-us-counterfeit-drug-case/.

5. Partnership For Safe Medicines Counterfeit Drug Incident Encyclopedia, April 24, 2012, “Two Israeli Citizens Plead Guilty To Importing Counterfeit Drugs To Us,” http://www.safemedicines.org/2012/04/two-israeli-citizens-plead-guilty-to-importing-counterfeit-drugs-to-us/.

6. Partnership For Safe Medicines Counterfeit Drug Incident Encyclopedia, June 15, 2012, “Canadian Citizen & Online Pharmacy Entrepreneur Arrested In Florida,” http://www.safemedicines.org/2012/06/canadian-citizen-online-pharmacy-entrepreneur-arrested-in-florida/.

7. UNODC Report, June 6, 2012, “New UNODC campaign highlights transnational organized crime as a US$870 billion a year business.”

8. World of DTC Marketing, September 31, 2012, “Why we pay so much for prescription drugs.”

9. NABP Internet Drug Outlet Identification Program January 2013,http://www.nabp.net/system/redactor_assets/documents/161/NABP_Internet_Drug_Outlet_Report_Jan2013.pdf.

10. CDC National Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention Program, September 21, 2011.

11. Partnership for Safe Medicines, December 6, 2012, “Honoring The 5th Anniversary Of Marcia Bergeron’s Passing,” http://www.safemedicines.org/2011/12/honoring-the-5th-anniversary-of-marcia-bergerons-passing-392/.

12. Brian Liang, American Journal of Law and Medicine, 2006,“Fade to Black: Importation and Counterfeit Drugs.”