'60 Minutes' tackles counterfeits

Sugar and chalk. That’s what Pfizer researchers found in a pill that was supposed to be Cytotec, but was, in fact, a crude knockoff seized from a counterfeit drug lab in Peru.

The “60 Minutes” segment that aired March 13 came as no surprise to Drug Store News, which has argued for many years that drug counterfeiting is a key reason lawmakers need to forget the reoccurring pipe dream that rogue Internet sites and drug reimportation are legitimate solutions to rising healthcare costs. They are not. At best, it creates bogus loopholes that allow people to sidestep the real challenge, which is about realigning incentives to make patients smarter healthcare consumers and to make providers more focused on outcomes than services. And at worst, it can kill you.

Thousands of suspicious packages containing possible counterfeit drugs are seized by Customs agents in U.S. postal facilities every day. According to estimates, 36 million Americans bought drugs from unlicensed Internet pharmacy sites last year.

What was surprising to DSN, however, was the number of negative comments “60 Minutes” received on its website from cynical viewers who believed the highly regarded news program had sold out.

“Tonight’s show ... hit a nadir in the appalling Pfizer infomercial masquerading as news,” one viewer noted on the “60 Minutes” website.

“‘60 Minutes’ owes its longtime viewers a sincere and public apology as part of an admission that this ‘report’ was an embarrassing abuse of its storied pulpit — a shameless insult to journalism itself,” posted another user.

This speaks to a much larger problem in America: the flawed sense of entitlement that threatens to undermine this country on a number of levels. We want to buy homes we can’t afford. We want national security and top-notch education that will allow our children to compete with the rest of the world, but we don’t necessarily want to pay for it. We want $4 generics and cheap drugs from the Internet, and we expect the Food and Drug Administration and Pharma to be able to guarantee the safety of those products.

The reality is that you can’t pay for the kind of operation companies like Pfizer have to fund to ensure the safety of its products and help guard the integrity of the U.S. drug supply chain on margins from $4 products. The “60 Minutes” segment opened with an early morning raid on a Peruvian counterfeit pill operation run out of a shabby, one-room, makeshift lab, where knockoff Pfizer products were being crudely manufactured.

Peruvian law enforcement agencies were tipped off about the operation by Pfizer’s John Clark, who heads the company’s global security team, which is comprised of former FBI, Homeland Security and Drug Enforcement Administration agents. The group works with local law enforcement to identify and prosecute international drug counterfeiters. 

The reality is that the FDA doesn’t have the resources to do it either. FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg told “60 Minutes” that the United States still has not identified the source of the contaminated ingredient that likely killed dozens of heparin users in 2008. The reality is that today in 2011, the counterfeit drug business is a $75 billion-a-year-and-growing, underground industry with no signs of slowing down because drug traffickers realize there is a lot more return on investment in imitation prescription pills than, say, cocaine or heroin. The reality is that some criminal in some disgusting hovel anywhere in the world can knock off a pill for about 40 cents and sell it for $20, and it’s up to drug makers like Pfizer to spend the money to catch them before you die from taking a pill made of sugar and chalk.

Granted, it was a lot of information to cover in a 15-minute segment, and their producers may have confused the issue a bit — there are myriad companies that produce perfectly safe and efficacious medicines that operate in foreign countries.

But DSN knows a few things about good journalism, and “60 Minutes” deserves credit for making millions of Americans face the cold hard truth about drug counterfeiting.