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How to spot a counterfeit medicine

10 March 2020

One of the tablets below is genuine. The other two are counterfeit. Can you tell which is the real medicine?

counterfeit medicines can be hard to spot

The clues are subtle: the tablet at the top has a slightly longer 'f' in the company logo, while the bottom two tablets are a greyish blue and have rougher edges.

The tablet at the top is a genuine medicine. The two lower tablets are fake. They could be diluted, contaminated, or even just chalk.

When fake medicines infiltrate the supply chain, the only people who win are criminal profiteers. But as you can see from this example, it is not always easy to identify fraudulent medicines. Companies spend a lot of money and resources fighting imitation medicines, which, in turn, may lead to higher costs for the consumer.

The TGA helps protect Australians from counterfeit medicines through monitoring of reports, compliance activities and laboratory testing.

What is a counterfeit medicine?

There are two types of fake medicines: products that imitate genuine medicines, and products that make false claims about their ingredients.

A counterfeit medicine could have:

  • no active ingredient
  • substandard ingredients
  • undeclared ingredients
  • illegal or dangerous ingredients
  • incorrect dosage (too much, too little or variation in dose across tablets)
  • contaminants from unhygienic manufacture.

How common are counterfeit medicines?

Any product can be counterfeit, from dermal fillers to leukaemia medicine. In countries that have strong medicines regulation, such as Australia, fake medicines are rarer, especially when bought from reputable retailers such as registered pharmacies. A pharmacist found to deal in counterfeits could have their registration as a pharmacist cancelled.

You are more likely to encounter a counterfeit medicine if you try to buy a medicine online. Some websites look like they are Australian, but are actually located and distributing goods from overseas. According to the World Health Organisation, a number of medicines sold online are fake.

Health risks of counterfeits

All unapproved therapeutic goods pose a risk, and counterfeit goods have a much greater risk. Anyone that is willing to break the law to take your money could also be willing to cheat you or risk your health.

A fraudulent medicine may fail to treat the disease, which can be fatal if the medicine is intended to treat a life-threatening condition. Each year, more than 250,000 children die because of fake and substandard pneumonia and malaria medicines alone.

Fake medicines can cause unexpected adverse reactions if they have undeclared ingredients or contaminants. Moreover, in the case of diluted antibiotics, understrength medicines contribute to antimicrobial resistance.

How to spot a fake

The quickest way to spot a bogus medicine is to compare it with an authentic medicine. Medicines are manufactured with precision, so any variation in size, weight, colour, quality or embossing could indicate a forgery.

When you take a counterfeit medicine, you may also get the sense that something is "off", such as an unexpected reaction.

You might also notice variations in the packaging – sometimes they are subtle, like in the photo below, where the coloured bars are different lengths.

label differences

Sometimes it is more obvious, such as spelling errors in the medicine name.

We use laboratory tests to assess suspected counterfeits. Our analytical chemistry techniques profile the ingredients and potency of these medicines, which can confirm that a medicine is a fake.

How we stop counterfeits

Counterfeit therapeutic goods are against the law and subject to criminal and civil penalty provisions in the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989.

We work with other Commonwealth and State and Territory agencies to keep fraudulent medicines out of the marketplace. Fake medicines found to be imported into Australia are seized and destroyed.

Don't take the risk

Counterfeit medicines can be hard to identify. Lower your risk by buying your medicine from a registered pharmacy. If you do buy your medicines online, make sure it is through a pharmacist registered in Australia.

Be alert to anything suspicious about your medicine, and talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you have concerns about a product.

If you suspect a product is fake, report it to us.