Counterfeit pills flood U.S.: How to spot fakes

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(CBS) Currency and designer handbags aren't the only things being counterfeited these days. The U.S. is being deluged with counterfeit prescription drugs, and that's putting Americans' health at risk.

As Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported Sunday on CBS 60 Minutes, fake versions of antibiotics, blood pressure drugs, pain-killers, antianxiety medications, and other common medicines - can be hard to tell from the real things. But they're often made under unsanitary conditions and may contain only a fraction of the active ingredient they're supposed to - if they contain any at all.

The drugs are often sold via rogue websites that offer the drugs at steep discounts from the usual prices. Thirty-six million Americans are believed to have bought their medicines from these sites, including some sites that pretend to be based in Canada, where legitimate prescription drugs sometimes are available for lower prices than in the U.S.

Counterfeit version of drugs made by Pfizer have made their way to pharmacies and hospitals in at least 46 countries, including England, Canada, and the U.S., according to John Clark, a former FBI agent who now heads Pfizer's anticounterfeit team.

And the risk posed by counterfeit drugs isn't only theoretical.

"People can die," Kumar Kibble, deputy director of U.S. Immigrations and Enforcement, which is trying to stanch the flow of counterfeit drugs into the country.

In 2008, an estimated 80 Americans died after being given counterfeit heparin, a drug used to treat blood clots, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said on the program.

What can consumers do to avoid counterfeit medications? "If you have any concerns, you should go to your doctor, should go to your pharmacist," Clark told Gupta. "If the pill dissolves differently, if it tastes bitter or differently."

That may be easier said than done.

"I'm a doctor," Gupta told Clark. "I looked at these medicines today. I wouldn't be able to tell if they were fake or not."

  • David W Freeman

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