Educating Consumers on the Dangers of Counterfeit

Bad Meds

Tara Steketee
Director, Product Integrity, Merck

In late 2021, the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP Global) and National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) began development of an awareness campaign focused on educating US consumers regarding the dangers of counterfeit medicine and the risks of purchasing counterfeit medicine from unknown, online sources. Illicit sales of medicine online had dramatically increased during the pandemic and as the world was beginning to open up again with a new normalized reliance on e-commerce, it was critical to create this awareness at the consumer level via a national media and social campaign.

ASOP Global is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that advocates for protecting consumers around the world, ensuring safe access to medications, and combating illegal online drug sellers. Its associated 501(c)(3), the ASOP Global Foundation, addresses the growing public health threat of illegal online drug sellers through research and education to inform consumers and policymakers. As more Americans every day turn to the internet to buy prescription medicine, most remain unaware of the risks posed by illegal online pharmacies. This creates a ripe environment for increased online criminal behavior. At any given time, there are around 35,000 active online pharmacy websites –  approximately 95% of which do not comply with applicable laws and pharmacy standards. Counterfeit products sold by illegal online pharmacies often are manufactured in unsafe conditions, contain little or no active ingredients, and/or are manufactured using dangerous and sometimes deadly substances. This is bad for legitimate pharmacies, telemedicine providers, drug manufacturers, and – most importantly – the patients they aim to treat. It takes a village to address this issue. All stakeholders – from industry, policymakers, law enforcement, and providers –  must be involved in the larger efforts to curb the risk. ASOP Global Foundation’s Bad Meds campaign helps consumers stay safe when they buy medication online  by educating consumers to verify before they buy through using tools like LegitScript or NABP’s Safe.Pharmacy. 

NABP is the independent, international, and impartial 501(c)(3) nonprofit association that assists its state member boards and jurisdictions in protecting the public health. NABP was established in 1904 to assist the state boards of pharmacy in creating uniform education and licensure standards. Today, NABP helps support patient and prescription drug safety through examinations that assess pharmacist competency, pharmacist licensure transfer and verification services, and various pharmacy accreditation and inspection programs. NABP is committed to educating patients about the risks of purchasing medication online, including the possibility of receiving substandard and falsified medications. NABP believes that together, everyone can safeguard patients from the grave risks associated with counterfeit and substandard medicines.

The 2021 headlines were rife with deaths due to fentanyl poisoning contained in counterfeit medicine – children, teens, celebrities. It seemed that no one was safe from this different kind of deadly pandemic, and people were frightened. For every horrifying death due to fentanyl poisoning, the question remained: how many consumers were being impacted whose stories weren’t making headlines but were still facing the dangers of counterfeit medicine? ASOP and the NABP partnered with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to determine how to reach out to a particularly vulnerable consumer population and developed the Bad Meds campaign, designed to create awareness about the dangers of counterfeit medicine. As Libby Baney, Partner at Faegre Drinker and Senior Advisor to the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP Global),  noted in a press release about the campaign,

“Internet criminals know that people go online for three reasons: convenience, cost and access to care. Counterfeit medicines are rampant, and the risks are exponentially greater when you go online. We need to make it simple for people to find a safe site, and Safe.Pharmacy makes it really easy to verify before you buy. Danny Trejo cares about this – this is an issue that transcends Hollywood and is a reminder that everyone needs to hear this message and care about this.”

Bad Meds was officially launched in 2022 as an out of home, mass-media and social media campaign featuring actor and grass roots public health advocated Danny Trejo and gained immediate traction due to overwhelming support from additional law enforcement partners, like the United States Intellectual Property Rights Center, Department of Homeland Security Investigations and Los Angeles Police Department.

Director Jim Mancuso, who leads the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, explains:

“Criminals posing as legitimate pharmaceutical providers advertise prescription grade drugs or inexpensive alternatives – often without requiring a valid prescription. Unfortunately, the consumer, who believes he is getting a legitimate product, receives a counterfeit or unapproved version of the drug that contains no active ingredients and may have dangerous impurities. In addition, the bad actors now have access to the financial data the consumer used to purchase the fraudulent pharmaceutical, putting at risk, not only the consumer’s physical health and safety but, their financial security.”

Mancuso further states,

“Our mission at the IPR Center is two-fold: to create consumer awareness surrounding the dangers of illicit pharmaceuticals, and a campaign like Bad Meds is a perfect way to reach millions of consumers; and through programs like Operation Apothecary, to identify and dismantle domestic organizations that illegally import and/or distribute pharmaceuticals and scheduled drugs and to dismantle foreign organizations that sell and ship these pharmaceuticals into the United States.”

As of this publication, BadMeds has reached more than 80M unique users on social media and 150M homes across the US, Canada and select European markets. Importantly to note, there has been a steadying increase in traffic to NABP’s website where consumers may verify their medications before purchasing them, and therefore protect themselves from harm.