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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

The FDA and pharmaceutical companies have employed a number of methods to thwart counterfeiters—yet scammers seem to have no trouble keeping up.

By Meera Lee Sethi // Spring 2011
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1961:

The FDA employs visual and microscopic analysis of the “punch marks” found on tablets—telltale ridges and grooves left by the machinery that manufacturers use to press pills—to detect a slew of counterfeits.

1989:

GlaxoSmithKline uses tamper-proof holograms as an anticounterfeiting measure on its best-selling drug Zantac. The devices soon become an industry standard.

1999:

Researchers find crudely faked holograms on counterfeit antimalarials in Southeast Asia.

2004:

The FDA encourages drug companies to add RFID tags to medications.

Pfizer starts printing some logos with color-shift ink (also used on many banknotes), which make them change from purple to blue when viewed at different angles.

2006:

Oxycontin, Viagra and the HIV treatment Trizivir become part of a few pilot RFID drug-tagging programs launched by pharmaceutical companies. (Widespread RFID implementation remains elusive to this day because of cost concerns and the requirement for the system to be adopted universally from manufacturer to pharmacy.)

2007:

Scientists develop “portable chemistry labs” and handheld mass spectrometers that can analyze the composition of medications anywhere, anytime.

In Ghana a service launches to allow patients to authenticate drugs by using their cell phone to text a code on the bottle to a toll-free number and waiting for verification. Similar measures have since been adopted in India and Nigeria, among other places.

2010:

Pfizer finds fake drugs with color-shift logos so realistic that its lab can’t distinguish them from the real ones. It stops using the feature.

2011:

TruTag Technologies makes 100% edible microtags from silicone wafers; placed on individual tablets or caplets, the tags can be scanned by an optical reader through a blister pack. As many as a trillion unique tag patterns are possible.

2015–2017:

California to begin implementing “E-Pedigree” laws that require drug manufacturers, wholesalers, repackagers, pharmacies and pharmacy warehouses to use electronic records tracking in every transaction that involves a prescription drug.

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Counterfeit Drugs: Cheating the System

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From mishandled stolen shipments to repackaged fakes to scammers diluting medications, there are multiple ways phony pharmaceuticals get in the supply chain.

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