National

Public health risk from boom in black market pills, supplements peddled by organised crime

Confidential health department files warn of a growing public health risk from the boom in fake pills being peddled by organised crime gangs cashing in on the illegal medicine black market.

A Fairfax Media investigation can reveal that police have uncovered links between bikie gangs and fake erectile drug suppliers.

The unregistered Zhong Hua Niu Bian tablets, a fake erectile pill which contained the antibiotic chloramphenicol.
The unregistered Zhong Hua Niu Bian tablets, a fake erectile pill which contained the antibiotic chloramphenicol. Photo: TGA

But while the market is booming, regulators are talking about cutting back on the numbers of senior front-line investigators hunting out the trade.

With relatively light penalties for conviction compared to illicit drug dealing, organised crime groups are moving in on the counterfeit medicine business, providing supplements, including illegal peptides, to bodybuilders, unregistered weight loss supplements and fake sexual dysfunction pills.

Fake erectile pill Viagra 007, which promises to "keep sexual fatigue away thoroughly".
Fake erectile pill Viagra 007, which promises to "keep sexual fatigue away thoroughly". Photo: TGA

There are fanciful claims about what many of these fake drugs do.

The "Amazon Tonic III" is a green liquid which promises to cure cancer, "Viagra 007"  is said to be a pill that will "keep sexual fatigue away thoroughly". What they often bring with them is a serious health risk.  

In one recent case, a Western Australian man needed an emergency liver transplant after taking a protein powder he bought online that was said to contain green tea extract and was marketed as an aid to  weight loss. 

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has promised an investigation into the matter, but a confidential memo obtained by Fairfax warns that its stretched resources are hindering its ability to make an impact on the sham drug business.

"There is an identified upward trend of matters involving counterfeit medicine and unregistered medicines posing a public health risk requiring thorough investigation," the memo cautions. "In some matters ... elements of organised criminal groups have been identified."

Investigators claim outlaw motorcycle gangs supplied counterfeit tablets to a Sydney businessman who was caught selling the fake erectile pill "Rock Hard For Men", which lab tests showed contained the prescription-only substance sildenafil.

TGA documents also warn that criminals are believed to be funnelling cash to terrorist groups from the sale of fake drugs and supplements.

Monash University adjunct associate professor Ken Harvey said the unregistered drugs being sold on the black market usually contain either no active ingredients or dangerous levels of prescription-only substances, such as antibiotics. 

"The advice I give is never ever buy anything from the internet from outside Australia because there is such a high percentage of contaminated drugs," he said. "You're a fool if you do that."

With Asia accounting for the biggest share of counterfeit medicine, according to the Pharmaceutical Security Institute, Dr Harvey said the number of unregistered drugs being seized were only the "tip of the iceberg" of what was coming in.

In particular, he said the TGA needed to be stronger in educating the public about the dangers of buying drugs online.

"Most people have no idea that there is a TGA, let alone what it does," he said. "There's a lot of stuff in the complimentary medicine area, the supplements and vitamins where the system fails."

While the TGA's powers include prosecution in a criminal court, successful cases are relatively rare. The most recent court matter resulted in $2000 in fines and the confiscation of the imported counterfeit medicine.

An internal TGA memo says cases are often "complex and protected requiring extensive resource allocation" with a number of investigations held up through lack of manpower.

While a review prepared for the Health Department into the TGA's regulatory arm conceded investigators face a heavy workload, it recommended that the number of senior staff be reduced as part of a restructure. 

A TGA spokesperson said the Department of Health had accepted all of the recommendations put forward as part of the review of the regulatory arm.

The spokesperson said the number of staff in the unit would increase as part of the restructure, which will be implemented by May this year. 

"The implementation of the review will not impact our ability to ensure compliance [and] to prosecute offenders where prosecution is warranted," the spokesperson said.