Fighting counterfeit drugs starts with knowing it exists

- A new study in Latin America shows high awareness, but concern for dangers is mixed –

It is estimated that the rise in counterfeit drugs is responsible for up to a million deaths a year. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one of 10 medicines sold worldwide is counterfeit, a figure that can reach up to 7 of 10 in some countries1. Not surprisingly, the Internet has also become a major vector for counterfeit trafficking. One out of two medicines sold on websites concealing their physical address are counterfeit.

Sanofi has been involved for nearly 10 years in preventing and fighting fake medicines. Since 2008, a Sanofi laboratory in Tours, France has analyzed suspected counterfeit products and has improved knowledge of counterfeit medicines around the world. Sanofi has helped dismantle drug trafficking networks and plays an important role in prevention worldwide.

The most affected countries are in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where distribution channel controls are more easily evaded and counterfeit drugs can represent up to 30% of the market1.

To learn more about how people in these regions perceive the problem, Sanofi carried out a study on the perception of counterfeit medicines in Asia and the United States in 2015 and in Europe in 2014.

Sanofi just completed a new study on the perception of Latin Americans on the prevalence and risks of drug counterfeiting, as part of the Year of France-Colombia of which it is a partner2.

“Counterfeiting drugs is a crime against public health. This growing global menace is now affecting all categories of medicines. A counterfeit medicine can cause ineffective treatment, sometimes serious side effects and, in the worst cases, the patient’s death,” said Geoffroy Bessaud, Sanofi’s Coordinating Director of the fight against counterfeit medicines. “The results of our studies confirm that this menace is still insufficiently recognized. It is crucial for stakeholders to mobilize the patients to become better informed about the risks.”

Latin America: a region of exploding counterfeit drug trafficking

Drug counterfeiting has increased significantly in Latin America in recent years (30% of the medicines being sold in South America are counterfeit3). Criminal activity is booming as traffickers see an opportunity for exceptional profitability: trafficking in medicines is 10 to 25 times more profitable than narcotics for relatively less severe penalties4.

The new Latin America perception study was conducted in December 2016 and is based on the responses of over 7,000 individuals from Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico and Colombia. The purpose of the questions asked is to understand the level of awareness and perception of Latin Americans of the phenomenon of drug counterfeiting. The study also provides insight into people’s behavior with respect to their medication purchasing habits.

The study shows that 59% of the population questioned associates counterfeiting with drugs, more than clothing, high-tech objects and luxury goods. Colombia has the highest association rate (71%) while the lowest is in Brazil (32%), where counterfeiting is more often associated with luxury clothing and brands.

In terms of overall awareness of counterfeit drugs, Brazilians have the lowest awareness even though the country shares borders with territories where drug counterfeiting is very active. The Peruvians, on the contrary, are the most aware: 98% of respondents have already heard about it (91% on average in the 7 countries), 60% have already seen it (35% on average) and 19% believe they have sufficient information on the subject (13% on average).

Awareness of the danger of counterfeit medicines

Despite the fact that 91% have already heard about counterfeit medicines, only 62% of respondents consider that they are a danger and 36% consider that they are only “potentially” dangerous. Again, it is the Peruvians who appear to be the best informed about the dangers of fake medicines (75% say that counterfeits are indisputably dangerous) whereas only 44% of Argentines respond this way and 3% of them even consider these drugs to be totally harmless.

Medicine purchasing habits and associated attitudes

When asked about their purchasing habits, online shopping is seen as a way to save time and money and, for Argentines, to obtain medicines that are not for sale in their country.

On average, 27% of respondents have already purchased medicines online. While one in two online buyers said they had a sense of risk, 73% of Brazilians made purchases with confidence. The most suspicious are Peruvians, with 68% of respondents saying they had a feeling of taking a risk, followed closely by Argentines and Ecuadorians.

While the practice of purchasing medicines online is common, 72% of respondents are aware of exposing themselves to counterfeit products on the Internet. This mistrust extends to official distribution channels: on average, 28% report that counterfeit goods are sold online, with 37% responding this way in Colombia.

Conversely, purchasing medications while traveling is a widespread practice (41% of respondents reported having done so) and considered safe (80% of purchases made in pharmacies (86%) were made with a sense of security).

The most cautious are Peruvians, with 25% feeling that they are taking a risk versus 20% on average, whereas, as with online purchases, Brazilians appear to be the least worried (only 16% feel they are taking a risk).

Overall, the study shows that despite a high knowledge of the existence of counterfeit medicines in Latin America, awareness of the danger is very disparate between the seven countries surveyed. This is reflected in the behavior of online buyers but also through the degree of trust that people have with respect to official channels of distribution. Thus, the most suspicious and aware of the danger associated with counterfeit medicines seem to be the Peruvians, while those least worried are unquestionably the Brazilians; even though they are surrounded by countries where the manufacture and trafficking of fake medicines is exploding.

These results are significant in a region of the world where trafficking is intensifying, revealing both the success of campaigns to prevent counterfeiting and the need to continue and deepen them.

Counterfeit medicines in the world:

  • 1 medicinal product in 10 sold worldwide is counterfeit. This figure may reach 7 of 10 in some countries5.
  • In 2015, among 40 million products intercepted by European Customs authorities, 25.8% of health products were counterfeit medicines. A total of 895,324 medicines were seized6.
  • 200 billion dollars in 2014 compared with 75 billion dollars in 2010: these are the profits from counterfeit medicines; they are far superior to those from trafficking in narcotics7.
  • $1,000 invested in the trafficking of counterfeit medicines would yield up to $500,000 for criminal organizations8.
  • In 2016, 103 countries collaborated in Operation Pangea IX to fight against illegal online pharmacies. It led to the closure of 4,932 websites and the seizure of more than 12.2 million fake and illicit medicines with an approximate value of 53 million dollars9.

About Sanofi

Sanofi, a global healthcare leader, discovers, develops and distributes therapeutic solutions focused on patients’ needs. Sanofi is organized into five global business units: Diabetes and Cardiovascular, General Medicines and Emerging Markets, Sanofi Genzyme, Sanofi Pasteur and Consumer Healthcare. Sanofi is listed in Paris (EURONEXT: SAN) and in New York (NYSE: SNY).


  1. WHO Counterfeit medicines, December 2011.
  2. Study carried out from December 12-22, 2016 – Self-administered questionnaire on the basis of a representative sample of 7,044 people over 18 years of age in Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico and Colombia)
  4. International Institute for Anti-Counterfeit Drug Research:
  5. WHO Counterfeit medicines, December 2011.
  6. European Customs, 2016
  7. Counterfeit medicines are valued at around $ 200 billion, more than for illicit trafficking in prostitution and marijuana. Source = World Economic Forum, Global Risks, Sixth edition, An Initiative of the Risk Response Network, 2011, p. 23. IRACM 2015
  8. For every $ 1,000 invested, a criminal can generate US $ 20,000 in profits with heroin and counterfeit money and US $ 200,000 to US $ 500,000 through fake medicines trafficking. Source = IRACM
  9. Interpol 2016