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Why Stop at Fake Viagra? Drug Counterfeiters Move On to Cancer, Heart Meds

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This week's warning that fake versions of cancer treatment Avastin is circulating shows erectile dysfunction drugs aren't the only medicines being made illegally.

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Forget the "cheap Viagra" spam that makes its way through computer filters or hacked email accounts. Drug counterfeiters are becoming increasingly more sophisticated.

Take, for instance, the recent case of counterfeit Avastin, a cancer drug. At least 19 medical practices were warned by the Food and Drug Administration this week that they bought phony versions of the drug from a foreign supplier and Tennessee-based distributor. The copycat version doesn't contain the drug's active ingredient.

"As the implications for public health and safety are high we take this issue very seriously," says Charlotte Arnold, a spokeswoman for the drug's maker, Genentech.

Arnold says Genentech and parent company Roche (RHHBY.PK) have seen relatively few cases of counterfeiting the company's products overall. But that's not the case for Pfizer (PFE), the maker of erectile dysfunction pill Viagra, cholesterol drug Lipitor and a number of other big-selling medicines.

Pfizer discovered more than 50 of its products copied by counterfeiters in over 100 countries, spokesman Christopher Loder tells Minyanville.

Last year, more than 11 million counterfeit doses of Pfizer drugs were seized around the world, a 35% increase from the previous year, he says.

What's more, the scammers are very detail oriented. For instance, some counterfeiters make almost exact copies of Viagra's little blue pills, according to Pfizer. But those pills may be made of boric acid, drywall or worse, Loder warns.

"You name it, we've seen it," Loder says.

Pfizer is waging a war against counterfeiters and bogus online pharmacies who sell phony versions of Viagra and other medicines. A Web search for rock-bottom prices on the impotence drug would suggest the company has only begun to fight the problem, however.

Who's stupid enough to buy fake Viagra? Apparently, a lot of people. Because it's such a well-known drug, it's one of the most often copied by illegal sellers.

US Customs officials recently reported a sizable increase in counterfeit drug seizures. For the government's fiscal year ending last June, Customs seized 1,200 copycat drugs for a value of $16.8 million, which was three times as high as the dollar value in the year-earlier period.

Fake Viagra accounted for almost half of the dollar value of those seized drugs. The other top copycat medicines were the sleeping pill Stilnox, Eli Lilly's (LLY) impotence drug Cialis and Pfizer's anti-anxiety drug Xanax. Stilnox is an overseas brand name for zolpidem, which is sold as a generic or under the Sanofi (SNY) brand name Ambien in the US. Zolpidem has been used as a date-rape drug in the US, according to media reports.

The National Association of Board of Pharmacy says no one should order drugs from the Web unless the online drug store is verified. See "Find a VIPPS online pharmacy" for a list of verified and accredited online pharmacies.

And while finding out that you just bought fake Viagra can be a bummer, Jennifer Wall of the trade group PhRMA, emphasizes the problem "isn't just the lifestyle drugs."

Fake heart medicines, for instance, can put patients' lives at stake, she says. For that reason, PhRMA is backing a bill in Congress that would increase penalties for trafficking such drugs.

Twitter: @brettchase

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