A major survey has estimated that the counterfeit medicines market in Europe is worth more than 10.5 billion euros per year.

Described as one of the largest investigations of its kind, the ‘Cracking Counterfeit Europe’ research commissioned by Pfizer, and carried out by market researcher Nunwood, claims that putting a value on the size of the European counterfeit medicines market has been difficult. However, the drug giant’s analysis shows how one in five of the 14,000 people surveyed (in 14 European countries), equating to 77 million people in the total population, admitted to buying prescription-only medicines from illicit sources.

Almost half of the fake drugs bought on the net were weight-loss treatments, followed by prescription treatments for influenza and erectile dysfunction pills. According to the research, the main reasons people go online to access medicines is to save time and money, with nearly a third of those surveyed (33%) doing so because it is quick and convenient and 39% wanting to cut down on costs. The report follows a statement made at the end of 2009 by Gunter Verheugen, vice president of the European Commission, that 34 million fake tablets had been seized on the continent’s borders in just two months.

Pfize’s study adds that the number of counterfeit drugs uncovered at EU borders has increased from 560,598 articles in 2005 to 4,081,056 in 2007. The company’s UK medical director David Gillen noted that 23% of those surveyed “do not acknowledge that taking prescription-only medicines without a prescription is a risky activity” but 71% said if they thought the medicines could be fake, “this would impact the likelihood of them purchasing”.

He added that this points to “a clear need for greater public awareness and education. People are not only unaware of the very real dangers of counterfeit medicines, but also that they’re fuelling an illegal and harmful criminal market.” This view was echoed by Jim Thomson, chair of the European Alliance for Access to Safe Medicines, said the research “shows quite clearly that an alarming number of people are risking their health by opting out of the healthcare system. When they do that…they stand an extremely good chance of receiving a fake”.

Mr Thomson will take part in an online discussion on black market medicine on Friday, February 19 at 12.30 (UK time; see link below).