The illegal online counterfeit drugs trade may be worth as much as €70bn a year worldwide — with Irish sales unwittingly helping to fund crime gangs as far afield as Russia and China.
However, a lack of collaboration between countries and internet search engine giants means it is difficult to prosecute many of those behind the black market.
Irish Patients’ Association chairman Stephen McMahon detailed the issue after a new report warned of a surge in people resorting to the illegal sector here.
Mr McMahon, who is also patient advocate on a Council of Europe group tasked with addressing the problem, said it is understandable that cash-strapped patients are turning to the online world for savings.
However, he warned that apart from the risks these patients are taking with their health, buying medications online means they are unwittingly helping to fund major crime gangs abroad.
Previous reports by Interpol have warned the majority of websites selling counterfeit medicines have Russian IP addresses and are re-routed through China to avoid detection — with the World Health Organisation recently putting a €70bn figure on the sector.
The same reports have also noted, in some cases, the fake versions of prescription drugs — which regularly have incorrect dosage levels — have been found in raids alongside weapons and narcotics, suggesting a significant criminal link.
However, despite this situation, Mr McMahon said countries and internet search engine firms are failing to form a unified strategy for tackling the issue — meaning many of the perpetrators escape with minor sentences or fines.
“There are huge, vast sums of money connected to all of this. The value of the market is in the billions of euro, and it’s getting to the stage where 1kg of counterfeit medicine is more valuable than 1kg of cocaine.
“It is easier to prosecute a drug dealer than these makers, mainly because there are different interpretations about what a counterfeit medication is depending on the country.
“We need to have a joined-up approach to counter these issues, but until the likes of Google team up with it there is only so much that can be done,” he said.
Between June 18 and 25, a joint Garda, Customs and Interpol operation seized more than 192,000 fake medications coming at Irish borders with an estimated overall price of €612,000.
The figure found during the annual raid is 60% higher than last year and significantly more than the 51,600 tablets with a price tag of €150,000 uncovered in the week-long 2011 search.
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