An advertisement which stunned cinema-goers earlier this year, by showing a man coughing up a dead rat after having taken a counterfeit drug, was shown for the first time on UK television last night.

The ad, which is considered so shocking that it can only be shown on TV after 11 pm, kicked-off Get Real, Get a Prescription, a new public awareness campaign launched yesterday by Pfizer, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB), The Patients’ Association and HEART UK, aimed at alerting the public of the dangers of buying drugs from unregulated websites. A national billboard poster campaign will also run nationwide this month, with a consumer roadshow touring seven cities over the next week.

It is estimated that 50%-90% of all medicines now purchased over the Internet are counterfeit, and global sales of fake medicines are expected to research $75 billion by 2010, according to new research. In the UK alone, a survey of general practitioners (GPs) found that 67% have seen patients who have obtained medicines from illicit sources.

Without recognising the dangers associated with counterfeit medicine, UK adults are putting too much trust in illicit websites that are potentially selling them, according to research released yesterday to support the campaign. 32% of people who purchase prescription-only drugs without a prescription say they do so because it is quicker than obtaining the medicines legitimately while, alarmingly, 18% believe that people who sell drugs in this way are providing a service to the general public by offering cheaper medicines to those who need it. Moreover, 33% of people assume that what is being sold is the real thing, sourced from legitimate places and simply sold on, the research shows.

“This campaign is important - we want the UK to be the safest place to obtain medicines,” said RPSGB spokesman David Pruce. He advises the public to stay safe by ensuring that they always get prescriptions dispensed at a registered UK pharmacy. “If you want to buy medicines on-line, always check that you are dealing with a genuine pharmacy. Don't go on face value – some of the illegal sites look very professional but supply dangerous fakes. Check our website for a list of sites that have been awarded the RPSGB’s internet pharmacy logo so that you can be sure that you are dealing with a UK registered pharmacy supplying genuine medicines,” he adds.

"Ignorance can be dangerous when it comes to counterfeit medicines - people would be shocked if they really knew what was involved in manufacturing these drugs," said Katherine Murphy, director of The Patients’ Association.

- In January, the “dead rat” ad was launched in cinemas in direct response to research showing that more than 330,000 men purchase prescription-only drugs from unregulated sources such as Internet sites every year in the UK. Public reaction to the ad included 64 complaints lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), mainly claiming that it was “unduly distressing” and offensive, but the ASA dismissed all complaints, concluding that the ad was intended to raise awareness of a serious issue and was designed to be hard-hitting.