‘It was like opening a mortuary and

finding dead bodies’ – company official

Errant drug companies could be fined only a maximum Rs. 100,000

by Suresh Perera

The recent raids on two pharmaceutical companies allegedly selling expired drugs under fresh labeling triggered a media blitz, but notwithstanding all the resources mustered for the crackdowns, the maximum penalty that could be imposed under consumer protection laws on those found guilty is Rs. 100,000, health officials said.

The company at Grandpass, Colombo 14, which figured in the first raid by the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) some weeks ago, was fined Rs. 8,000 on pleading guilty, they said.

What was produced were some ‘catch covers’ given to medical practitioners as samples. The samples are sent by foreign suppliers in bulk with a ‘Not for Sale’ imprint on each of the products, they noted.

Though the charges could have been challenged, it was considered hassle-free and cost-effective to "plead guilty" and save millions of rupees as legal fees and related expenses in case of a trial, the officials pointed out.

The CAA would have spent more than Rs. 8,000 in terms of overall costs to carry out this raid as it involved many officers, vehicles and other resources. The regulatory body’s Chairman, Rumy Marzook was also personally present during the swoop-down to share the media spotlight.

CAA officers were present at the company’s premises around-the-clock for three days trying to dig up evidence of wrong-doing, they asserted. "The adverse publicity was bad for business, but as patients need drugs, suppliers bounce back".

"The end result of this headline-grabbing raid was the payment of a nominal fine", they pointed out. "And, as the dust settles, it is back to business".

"That’s right, a fine beyond Rs. 100,000 cannot be imposed on errant drug companies that plead guilty", an Internal Trade Ministry official conceded. "We do our best, but the rest is beyond us as there is a legal procedure involved".

At the end of the day, it boils down to a mere "media circus" because even if the maximum fine was to be imposed, it is just peanuts for those who had been minting money at the expense of suffering patients, the health officials said.

It is an open secret that hefty inducements are offered by unscrupulous drug companies to secure registration of poor quality, substandard products detrimental to the health of the nation, they claimed. "The industry knows that a tablet they, more often than not, buy at fifty cents is sold at fifty rupees in Sri Lanka".

In the second raid on the complex of a pharmaceutical importer at Attidiya, Ratmalana, the CAA seized drugs which had expired four years ago. They were to be re-packaged with new expiry dates and introduced to the market, the Ministry official said.

"A repackaging machine was also found inside the ‘Expiry Section’ to be used for this purpose’, he claimed.

"This is absolutely bunkum. There was a shrink wrapping machine downstairs and it is still there", a senior company executive interjected.

For three days, they searched the complex and when they couldn’t unearth anything incriminating, officers forced open the ‘Expiry Section’ and found stocks to be destroyed after Cosmetics Drugs and Devices Regulatory Authority (CDDRA) approval, he said.

What the CAA did was akin to opening a mortuary and finding dead bodies, he noted. If not drugs beyond their shelf life, what did they expect to discover in the ‘Expiry Section’?"

He said that the drugs had already been segregated for destroying by the CDDRA, which is done through Holcim Lanka at Puttalam every two years. "Six tones have to be collected and the last destruction process was in April 2013".

There were expired stocks worth only Rs. 3.8 million, though the CAA claimed a value of Rs. 500 million, he said. "This is ridiculous – we don’t even have a Rs. 500 turnover every three months, and moreover how can they pin an exact value on expired stocks?"

"We will be filing legal action against this company", the Ministry official warned. "They won’t get away".

"We are prepared to challenge it and there is no question of pleading guilty as we have done no wrong", the company executive said. "If found guilty, we are willing to surrender our license to the CDDRA".

"They claim that we are repackaging and feeding the market, but have they found anything after the series of raids conducted on pharmacies?", he asked. "We would like to see what they found".

The stores of this company was raided some years ago as well", the official said.

"They raided our pharmacy at the time and after snooping around found two boxes of expired drugs awaiting disposal", the executive countered. "All this is eye wash".

The raids will continue, the official warned. "We will rope them in".

"They are at liberty to conduct raids as long as they are not on selective targets", the company executive said.

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