Pfizer has become the first drugmaker in the USA to adopt pack-level radio-frequency identification (RFID) tagging for a pharmaceutical product as a means to combat counterfeiting.

The product to receive the electronic tagging system is erectile dysfunction treatment Viagra (sildenafil citrate), which is one of the most counterfeited pharmaceutical products on the market.

US think tank, the Centre for Medicines in the Public Interest, recently released a report projecting that counterfeit drug sales could reach $75 billion in 2010, a 92% increase from 2005, and RFID is one strategy that is being evaluated to tackle the problem.

RFID has been around for years and is already in use in a number of applications. For example, the same principle is used in remote central locking systems for cars. It consists of two elements that communicate through radio transmission - a tag and a reader. The tag contains a small chip and an antenna, and the information it carries, such as an identification number, can be transmitted to an RFID reader over a distance of a few metres.

RFID tags are being added to all Viagra sold in the USA to enable pharmacies and wholesalers to verify the unique electronic product code, or EPC, on Viagra packaging. The new Viagra bottle label also includes security features such as a two-dimensional barcode for use with line-of-sight barcode scanner applications and a larger colour-shifting ink bar.

Pfizer is the first to adopt RFID technology on such a scale, although a number of other drugmakers, including GlaxoSmithKline, have also implemented pilot programmes to test the technology. GSK has already implanted RFID tagging - at the pallet level rather than pack level - for some consumer healthcare products shipped to retailers, notably Metro in Germany and Wal-Mart in the USA.

In 2004, Wal-Mart – using its position as the world’s largest retailer as a lever - imposed a deadline for its suppliers to tag at the pallet level all goods coming into its warehouses of January 1, 2005, although the complexity of the implementation meant that most suppliers missed this deadline.

For Pfizer, though, "the primary goal for adding the technology is to enhance patient safety," at least in the near-term, according to Tom McPhillips, vice president of the company’s US Trade Group.

"We want pharmacists who fill prescriptions for Pfizer medicines, and patients who use those medicines, to have increased confidence that they are receiving authentic product and not a potentially dangerous fake. We are creating additional barriers for criminals who might attempt to counterfeit our products."

McPhillips stressed that the company's application of RFID is not yet capable of "tracking and tracing" medicines through the distribution system. Track and trace requires that all parts of the supply chain invest in RFID technology and agree to capture and share information about product movement. However, he said Pfizer will continue to explore the uses of this technology during the coming year.

Two recently-published reports predict that RFID is about to explode onto the pharmaceutical market. Frost & Sullivan estimates that the revenue from the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries investing in RFID technology will rise from $370 million to $2.3 billion in 2011.

Meanwhile, technology market research firm Gartner notes that spending on RFID across all industries will balloon from around $500 million in 2005 to more than $3 billion in 2010.