The World Health Organization (WHO) has appealed for international action against fake and mislabelled medicines.
Along with the pharmaceutical industry it plans to launch a global taskforce to stem what it considers to be a "growing epidemic” of counterfeit drugs.
Counterfeit drugs are now estimated to account for 10 percent of drugs sold worldwide, worth nearly U.S. $40bn (Euro 34bn, £23bn) a year.
The taskforce will be established at a WHO conference of high-level regulatory, pharmaceutical industry and consumer representatives in Rome.
It's focus will be on combating counterfeit drugs by strengthening national laws and enforcement, raising awareness by consumers and health professionals, improving international co-operation and developing “innovative technology solutions” including electronic tagging to track fakes.
Howard Zucker, WHO’s assistant director-general for health technology and pharmaceuticals, says people don’t die from carrying a fake handbag or wearing a fake t-shirt, but they can die from taking a counterfeit medicine.
WHO has warned that the drug counterfeiting business is an increasingly sophisticated and lucrative one, which could virtually double to be worth $75 billion by 2010.
It has urged customs, police and drug enforcement agencies to share more information on fake drugs and their distribution methods to shut down international networks.
The WHO says that barcoding medicines, increasing surveillance methods and improving patient and healthcare worker education could also help ensure fewer people take fake medicines, which can lead to drug resistance and death.
The WHO is now no longer pressing for work to start on an international treaty to tackle counterfeit medicines, which critics feared could simply serve as an excuse for delay and inaction.
Harvey Bale, director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), which is co-sponsoring the Rome conference says action is needed.
The problem is inevitably worst in poor countries with weak regulation and enforcement, where fake medicines for life-threatening diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS are produced, and much of the growth is fuelled by internet sales into western markets.
It seems counterfeiters are now focusing not just on "lifestyle" drugs such as hormones and remedies for erectile dysfunction, but also expensive treatments for cancer and drugs in high demand, most recently the anti-viral Tamiflu.
The very absence of any criminal laws against counterfeiting in many countries has encouraged organised crime rings to enter the business, and Mr Bale says they are gravitating towards the industry because the risks are a lot less than forging currencies or trafficking heroin.
Dr Zucker says international police action against the factories and distribution networks should equal that applied to the pursuit of narcotic smuggling.
WHO says it plans to extend to more regions a web-based system for tracking the activities of drug counterfeiters set up last year in order to link national health authorities and other agencies in the western Pacific.