Smuggled drugs flood Sri Lankan market

With doctors prescribing unregistered brands



The widespread use of unregistered pharmaceuticals in Sri Lanka has caused deep concern in the marketplace, but industry players warned that the problem is exacerbating with brisk business for smugglers raking in big bucks.

There is a growing demand for these products because even doctors serving in government hospitals openly prescribe these drugs to be purchased from private pharmacies as part of the therapeutic care provided to patients with various ailments, they asserted.

Patients also produce prescriptions from some National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL) physicians, they claimed. "Though it’s a risky proposition, there are pharmacies which surreptitiously store hundreds of diverse brands as the margins are hefty".

Medicines not registered in Sri Lanka are described as "counterfeit drugs", but the surge in demand has led to procuring from unauthorized channels, mostly in India and Pakistan, industry officials said. "Stocks are also smuggled into the country in passenger baggage".

The contention of doctors is that they prescribe brand names listed in the official Drug Index. Perhaps, some of them could be unaware whether the medicines are registered in Sri Lanka or not, the officials pointed out.

Though the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) classifies these products as "counterfeits", in reality they have therapeutic value. However, as there is no legal or official mechanism to help patients to access them, they have to depend on pharmacies to procure the drugs for their use, they explained.

The only option is to revive the personal user license mechanism so that drug importer companies can undertake to procure them on behalf of patients, they suggested. "What happens now is that the cost of such drugs is multiplied five times to retain a big cut down the line".

Amongst the unregistered brands in demand are Bupropion (anti-depressant and smoking cessation aid), Acamprosate (alcohol dependence), Rifagut and Hepamerz (liver diseases), Memantine (Alzheimer’s), Thalidomide and Sorafenib (cancer), Dapoxitene (premature ejaculation), Clonidine (high blood pressure), Apresoline (hypertension), Primidone (anti-convulsant), Perfenidone (lung diseases), Chlordiazepoxide (alcohol withdrawal), Modasanil (day-time sleepiness), Diazoxide (low blood sugar), Vigabatrin (anti-epileptic), Atomoxitene (hyper-activity) and Amantadine (Parkinson’s disease).

These products are in addition to a range of illegal abortion pills including the fast-moving Misaprostol, which is sold at prices ranging from Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 25,000 depending on whether it is the full eight tablets or less, the officials noted.

NMRA’s Chairman, Prof. Lal Jayakody said that he is aware of the existence of smuggled, unregistered drugs in the market, but it is a well organized operation which is difficult to bust.

"The problem is detecting pharmacies, which deal in counterfeit brands on the sly, as they have ways of selling the products. They know how to identify genuine customers. That’s why our decoys and drugs inspectors cannot trap them", he noted.

He said that there are even some reputed pharmacies which are into the unregistered drugs business on the sly to make a fast buck. They have an idea about medicine and also by and large know how to circumvent the system in selling products that are illegal in the country.

Under these circumstances, it is difficult to establish a trail of objective evidence to prosecute the offenders, Jayakody pointed out. "These drugs are smuggled inside baggages from airports and seaports in the country".

The professor said that smuggled drugs are a global threat. It’s a big business as there is easy money involved.

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