HK at centre of global drugs scam

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February 11, 2008  
Filed under Uncategorized

The Standard - Hong Kong is at the centre of a scam channeling counterfeit drugs from the mainland abroad, according to an industry insider.

Counterfeiters have moved from lifestyle drugs including impotence, sleeping and slimming pills and antifungal shampoos to medicines for severe and chronic conditions such as diabetes, cholesterol, and liver and heart problems, a source in the local pharmacy industry revealed.

“We are aware the drugs are mainly from China and some have been sent through Hong Kong to different countries. Hong Kong is a free port, making it vulnerable to illicit activities,” the source said.

The trend has also been identified by the US government.

A report issued by the Office of the United States Trade Representative and released last year singled out Hong Kong and four other countries – Paraguay, the Philippines, Ukraine and Thailand – as having “significant problems” with transshipped or in- transit goods.

“Transshipped and in-transit goods, which are goods that enter one customs territory but are intended for another destination, pose a high risk for counterfeiting and piracy because customs procedures may be used to disguise the true country of origin of the goods or to enter goods into customer territories where border enforcement is known to be weak,” the report said.

Hong Kong customs did not deny the reports findings but said it “will continue with its anti-counterfeiting efforts, and looks forward to enhancing cooperation with the US and other law enforcement administrations to explore ways to identify and stop more effectively counterfeit shipments destined for the US and other places.”

The Hong Kong Association of the Pharmaceutical Industry warned that counterfeit drugs carried severe health risks as their ingredients may be found in quantities more or less than listed on packaging, and genuine drugs were re- packaged to change the expiry date. In some cases, counterfeit drugs tested overseas were found to contain three times the active ingredient of their patented equivalent, and this could cause severe health risks, according to the association’s executive director Sabrina Chan So-kuen.

“Drugs carrying fewer ingredients than those listed could be equally dangerous as this could delay effective treatment and cause death to patients with acute and severe health problems, like heart diseases,” Chan said.

Last year Hong Kong customs cracked 28 cases, most involving dispensaries, which led to the seizure of about HK$20.6 million in counterfeit medicine. In 2006, 19 cases resulted in the seizure of about HK$139,000 worth of counterfeit medicine.

Customs said the surge in seizures last year came despite the cracking of an international syndicate in counterfeit drugs that dealt in medicine for treating heart diseases and male impotence, anti- flu and slimming drugs.

Officers seized about 470,000 counterfeit tablets in that operation.

It was estimated that the same amount of genuine drugs could fetch HK$19 million on the retail market.

Counterfeit drugs aroused public concern when one man died and 11 others were taken to hospital recently after taking fake impotence drugs.

One patient was found to have bought fake Viagra in Yuen Long.

The pharmacy association has called for a separate law on counterfeit medicine and sentencing guideline for judges to reflect the severity of the financial harm and the health risks they carry.

Fake drugs are treated like other counterfeit goods under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance and carry a maximum penalty of a fine of HK$500,000 and five years’ imprisonment. The industry said most culprits are only fined between HK$4,000 and HK$20,000. In one case the fine was just HK$500.