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Illicit Pharmaceuticals Trade: Drivers and Facilitators.

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Organised crime and the illicit trade in tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceuticals in the UK. 11/02/2015






The Internet plays a prominent role in facilitating the illicit trade of pharmaceuticals. The majority of illicit pharmaceuticals are obtained online, mainly due to the accessibility of « online pharmacies ». The (British) Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency ( MHRA ), notes that while incidents of falsified medical products reaching pharmacies are relatively rare, access to falsified medical products is more common through unregulated websites.

According to the Financial Times, more than half of all spam emails continue to have medicines as their subject, directing the recipient to illegal websites. The number of illicit websites shut down by MHRA has dramatically increased since 2008, from zero to nearly 2000 during the year 2014.

The low-risk and high-reward nature of the crime makes it attractive to organised criminals. In the illicit pharmaceuticals trade, high profits can be made and the penalties for offences are modest. The problem is aggravated by the disproportionate attention paid by counter-trafficking initiatives to narcotics. The less severe penalties make pharmaceuticals the « contraband of choice », while the focus on narcotics means there are fewer obstacles to infiltrating the pharmaceutical supply chain.

The common market in the EU is held to be an important contributing factor in the illicit pharmaceuticals trade. A commonly used term in this area is « parallel trading », in which products available cheaply in one part of Europe can legally be shifted to another with higher prices.

In itself, there is nothing illegal or wrong about properly conducted parallel trading ; as much as 25% of Britain’s NHS prescriptions arrive via this route, and an estimated 90% of Britain’s pharmacies have some products that have come via parallel trade.

But the fact that medicines can legally be repackaged is a particular vulnerability: while it is designed to ensure packaging is in the correct language, it allows alternative products to be inserted. Many industry stakeholders believe that the UK is often a major transit point in parallel trading, as the products are seen to come from a credible source and thus reassure buyers.