NEW YORK - Counterfeit medicines are on the rise worldwide, as criminals capitalize on the growing use of the Internet by consumers searching for inexpensive drugs.
Seizures of bogus prescription medicines jumped 24 percent to 1,513 incidents in 2007, and illicit versions of 403 different prescription drugs were confiscated in 99 countries, according to the Pharmaceutical Security Institute, a group funded by 26 drug makers.
The $3 billion in counterfeit drugs seized include generic copies that violate patent laws and products that lack active chemical ingredients or contain improper dosages.
In the decade since Internet sites began selling illegal copies of Pfizer Inc.'s erectile dysfunction drug Viagra, counterfeiters have diversified, marketing pills to treat heart disease, arthritis, asthma, AIDS, and cancer, according to the institute, which has been monitoring product seizures since the group was formed in 2002.
Copies of 19 of the world's 25 best-selling drugs were among those seized by industry security, customs agents, and police last year at ports of entry, in free-trade zones or at illicit manufacturing and distribution sites, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
"It's a big issue, it's a global issue, it's an insidious issue," said John Lechleiter, Eli Lilly & Co.'s president and chief executive.
Pfizer, the world's largest drug maker, estimates it may lose sales of $2 billion a year in Viagra alone, given how much of the drug's active ingredient is produced in India and shipped abroad, says Rubie Mages, a Pfizer director of global anticounterfeiting. Sales of the drug in 2007 totaled $1.8 billion.
"Over the past six years we've seen double-digit increases around the world" of counterfeit drug seizures, said Thomas Kubic, a former FBI agent who is executive director of the pharmaceutical institute.
US Food and Drug Administration officials say they are unable to stop the flow of illegal drugs sold on the Internet.