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Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I seek your advice and help for school children in my constituency. I think that there is cross-party support for our encouraging as many young people as possible to visit the Palace, but several schools in my constituency have told me that they will not organise visits any more because they are deterred by the cost of parking and difficulties caused by the anti-terrorism measures that have been adopted outside.

I contacted the office of the Mayor of London, which told me that the matter was not negotiable; the Palace would have to deal with it. I wonder whether you could use your good offices to help students and other children in my constituency to come to the Palace more, and to address the parking issue.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): It is obviously important for all young people, particularly students, to visit the House of Commons to see how we work, but that is not a matter directly for the Chair. It is, of course, a matter for the House authorities. The hon. Gentleman has put his comments firmly on record; no doubt the House authorities will think about them, and will decide what to do.


Luton Airport

7.17 pm

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I wish to present a petition opposing the massive expansion of Luton airport with two runways and two terminals, disgorging 30 million cars on to the roads of Hertfordshire. The petition has been signed by 7,710 local residents. There have also been 1,770 text messages and more than 1,000 letters, 250 of which arrived in today's post.

To lie upon the Table.
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26 Jan 2006 : Column 1639

Counterfeit Medicines

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Coaker.]

7.17 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): The counterfeiting of drugs is a global problem. The World Health Organisation estimates that between 8 and 10 per cent. of the global medicine supply chain is counterfeit. That represents up to £20 billion worth of medicines.

In developing countries, up to 60 per cent. of public and private health expenses are used to buy medicines. The WHO estimates that 25 per cent. of those medicines are fake, and in some countries the figure could be as high as 40 per cent. In the world's poorest and most vulnerable communities, people are dying needlessly of AIDS and malaria. Counterfeiting hot spots include Mexico, Pakistan, India, China and Russia.

Counterfeits are dangerous for a variety of reasons. They may be contaminated, they may contain too much or too little of the active ingredient, or they may contain none at all. Counterfeits are totally different from generics. Generics must have the same bio-equivalence as the original patented drug; counterfeits are fakes, and often lethal fakes.

In China in 2003, nearly 1,000 drug-counterfeiting factories were closed and millions of fake drugs were seized. It is estimated that 100,000 Chinese people died that year as a result of taking counterfeit medicines.

In Africa, half of malaria medicines are thought to be fakes. In the west, drugs are normally finished and packaged to a higher standard. For that reason, it is almost impossible for patients and many professionals to see the difference between real and counterfeit medicines. In wealthier countries, the most frequently counterfeited medicines tend to be new, expensive lifestyle drugs. For example, it is estimated that half the Viagra sold over the internet is worthless.

The profits from pharmaceutical counterfeiting are huge and the risks lower than those involved in trafficking narcotics. Counterfeiting is linked to all forms of organised crime such as money laundering, drug trafficking, terrorism and other illegal activities. Distribution channels mirror those of the illegal drugs trade, and in many developing countries drugs often disappear into a black hole. Corruption is rife. Retroviral drugs sent to Africa at reduced prices are often intercepted by corrupt officials or gangs and sold back to Europe to be replaced by worthless copies in Africa.

As borders become more porous, the global trade is expanding. Counterfeiting is no longer a cottage industry; it is big business. Criminal gangs are so professional that they will buy the same manufacturing and packaging equipment as drug companies, allowing them to produce up to 50,000 tablets an hour.

Pharmaceutical products are attractive to criminal gangs because they are easily transportable and command a high price per unit. Profits from fake pharmaceuticals can be larger than those from narcotics such as heroin and cocaine. The added bonus for traffickers is that the trade carries a lower risk than that in narcotics because law enforcement agencies are perhaps not as aware of the problem.
26 Jan 2006 : Column 1640

The problem of illegal medicines needs to be handled carefully. Fortunately, in the UK, counterfeits remain extremely rare when sourcing is done through recognised pharmacies. The UK supply chain remains one of the most difficult to penetrate, with 600 million prescriptions written annually. However, in July last year, counterfeit Lipitor, a powerful cholesterol-busting drug, was discovered. The counterfeit was made to look like a UK pack and was traced by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency to two separate licensed UK wholesalers. Of course, the manufacturer of the genuine drug issued a total recall. Of those packs returned by pharmacists, however, more than 50 per cent. were found to be fake after being analysed.

Fifteen months earlier, in April 2004, detectives raided a warehouse near Wembley stadium and found a factory producing thousands of fake prescription medicines every day. Enough mixture was seized to make more than 20,000 tablets an hour—Viagra, steroids, tranquilisers and antidepressants. They were expertly packaged and labelled, and some active ingredients were present, but not the right ones.

When dealing with counterfeits, criminals are taking the long-term view. Fake drugs are offered at just below market price so as not attract attention and the continuing growth in counterfeiting comes when there is increasing concern about the integrity of the UK wholesale supply chain.

UK wholesalers are licensed by the MHRA, but gaining a licence is relatively easy. Those applying for licences are rarely asked to produce a passport, birth certificate or driving licence and it is even unclear whether a Criminal Records Bureau check is routinely undertaken. Against that background, the number of wholesale licences issued has risen tenfold in the past 12 years, providing additional entry points for counterfeits. Once a licence is granted, wholesalers can trade almost without restriction.

The growth in the number of wholesalers mirrors the growth in parallel trading. In recent years, a new market has emerged that has understandably seen the national health service and other purchasers exploit price differentials in medicines across the European Union. Each year, 140 million medicines are parallel traded across the EU of which perhaps 70 per cent. are destined for the UK. Parallel trade accounts for up to 20 per cent. of all prescription medicines sold in this country.

Medicines are sourced at the cheapest unit price across the EU, but, to comply with the language and packaging requirements of national markets, drugs are often repackaged and the seals broken. The growth in parallel trading means that, often, pharmaceutical products pass through the hands of multiple distributors, creating a highly fractured supply chain that can be accessed by determined counterfeiters.

A Bermuda triangle has been formed by parallel trade, counterfeits and online pharmacies. It is the growth of unregulated internet pharmacy that provides the best opportunity for counterfeit and illegally re-packaged medicines to enter the supply chain. The internet is like a sweetshop, except one can buy painkillers, tranquilisers and even methadone; indeed, one can buy methadone from hundreds of sites. Most online pharmacies are unregulated and will dispatch
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dangerous medicines without prescription. Many people, including patient groups, pharmacists and doctors, believe that online pharmacies represent a significant danger to those ordering prescriptions over the web.

There are now more than 2,300 sites selling drugs direct to the consumer. The five most advertised drugs are Viagra; Phentermine, a weight loss drug; Xenical, a weight loss drug; Propecia, a hair loss drug that would be lethal to women; and Adipex, a weight loss drug. Those sites are domiciled around the world but in almost all cases they are unlicensed to sell or prescribe prescription medicines.

Over the past six years, across the Atlantic, US drug enforcement agents have made 180 internet drug arrests but they know that they are just scratching the surface. Internet pharmacy sites are inexpensive to create and hard to shut down; up to 80 per cent. of drugs sold online are counterfeit.

The nature of this internet trade is frightening. A UK charity, the Depression Alliance, was able to buy prescription medicines for depression over the internet with a discount on bulk purchases; no consultation, no diagnosis, no prescription and no pharmacist. The Depression Alliance bought enough of a tricyclic antidepressant to kill eight people. Even after entering into online consultation that revealed that the potential buyer suffered from a pre-existing diabetic condition, self-harmed and repeatedly tried to commit suicide, the drug was still dispatched.

As I have said, this country still has a robust regulatory system. However, I am concerned that it may not be keeping pace with the emergence of a distribution channel that is tailor-made for sending counterfeit drugs to the UK. Of course, the last thing that we want is to create unnecessary panic. However, we need to accept that counterfeiting is a growing global problem fuelled by organised crime, unrestricted parallel trading and the growth of internet dispensing.

In the UK, internet pharmacies pose a growing threat to public health. They are largely unregulated; in the best case, these illegal pharmacies are dispensing sugar and, in the worst case, poison. I hope that as a result of this short debate the Government will take a good look at our regulatory system to see what measures can be taken to safeguard the public from this new and emerging threat.

7.27 pm

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