'Pharmaceutical crime unit needs more teeth'

Most phony or illegal drugs are sold via the Internet or smuggled in as "personal imports," Health Ministry, customs officials say.

mickey arieli 311 (photo credit: Judy Siegel)
mickey arieli 311
(photo credit: Judy Siegel)
Although pharmaceutical crime in Israel – marketing medications with the wrong ingredients or without active ones, in incorrect amounts or under unsuitable conditions – kills, none of the few criminals actually prosecuted has been sent to prison.
So said Mickey Arieli, director of the Health Ministry’s Pharmaceutical Crime Unit, during the annual meeting of the Permanent Forum of International Pharmaceutical Crime, which is taking place this week.
Representatives of leading official pharmaceutical crime fighters – police officers, pharmacists and regulators from the US, Canada, France, Ireland, Switzerland, Belgium, Australia, Germany, Singapore, Spain, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand – came here for the five-day conference despite Israel’s diplomatic problems. They are meeting at the capital’s Dan Panorama Hotel and touring relevant sites around the country until Friday.
Health Ministry Director-General Dr. Ronni Gamzu said at the opening of the conference this week that the unit was established in 2007 and despite its modest means and manpower slots, “has shown impressive results” in the fight against pharmaceutical crime, “which does not recognize politics or borders.”
Although most of the phoney or illegal products are “medications” sold via the Internet or smuggled in as “personal imports for personal use,” others have included fake toothpaste with ethylene glycol that could endanger children’s health, denture adhesive and even sunscreen with useless ingredients.
Kiosks sell illegal amphetamines to teenagers, who are even more endangered by taking them at parties in combination with alcohol.
As Israel has a national health insurance system, patients can usually get necessary medications via their health funds. But “lifestyle drugs” for treating obesity, erectile dysfunction and balding, for example, are not covered and are popular among pharmaceutical criminals who aim to make huge profits.
In addition, there are expensive medications such as the anticoagulant Plavix for heart attack victims that are not highly subsidized here and are prone to illegal dealings.
As many Israelis are multilingual and have additional passports as immigrants from other countries, criminals among them have an advantage in pharmaceutical crime. Virtual pharmacies can carry out money laundering, Arieli said.
A raid by Haifa police caught a network of Jews, Druse and Muslim and Christian Arabs working harmoniously as a network distributing illegal anabolic steroids all over the country, he added. Criminals from Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon and Syria have been known to work with Israelis to make profits on counterfeit, diverted and other illegal drugs here.
Arieli told the conference participants, most of whom had never been in Israel before, that some illegal products are printed with labels claiming a Health Ministry license, even though they do not contain what they are supposed to. He mentioned a component in a “natural product” for impotence named Zebra, which was seized in Rehovot.
“It was done professionally, complete with holograms to supposedly show authenticity. But it contained a prescription drug for impotence that may not be sold over the counter. The whole gang was arrested.”
The pharmaceutical crime unit head said that some Israel Police units were very helpful, while in other regions they were apathetic. Without the full cooperation of government agencies, it is impossible for the unit to function, Arieli added. Suspects caught with the goods are often not prosecuted, and those found guilty are frequently not given more than a negligible fine, he said.
While the unit’s need for more professional staffers is urgent, a senior Health Ministry official told The Jerusalem Post that the Treasury has the sole power to approve additional investigators. The unit has found fake or illegal drugs in commercial pharmacies as well as in kiosks, storehouses and shipments.
Arieli said that while his unit has had major successes in identifying criminals, “we have reached only the tip of the iceberg, and we haven’t succeeded in educating the public about the dangers of buying medicine from unauthorized sources.
“We have hopes of building up our unit, but we need official investigative powers. At present, we can only ‘interview’ a suspect. We have no cooperation from the Agriculture Ministry on fake veterinary drugs. A lifeguard on a Tel Aviv beach has more powers than us. All we want to do is protect public heath.”
A representative of Israel Customs said that personal imports brought in by mail or in the luggage of incoming travelers was a growing problem, as the law gives visitors the right to bring in a “60-day personal supply” of medications for their own use.
But, she asked, “how much is a 60-day supply of Viagra or Cialis?” Some bring in hundreds of pills and say it is for their use for 60 days, she said.
A representative of South Africa said that in his country, no personalimports of drugs are allowed except for a few urgent exceptions.
“It is a lot of extra work for us, but it is effective,” he said.
Loretta Stipa, a well-dressed and coiffed American pharmaceutical crimebuster from Florida with 30 years of experience in the field andchairwoman of the Permanent Forum’s secretariat, is actually a toughpolicewoman who carries a handgun wherever she goes in the US.
She noted that organized crime has switched from dealing in narcoticsbecause of the severe prison sentences if caught, to working incounterfeit and other illegal lifestyle drugs that net huge profits.More coordination is needed among the US states and their agencies, andamong the various members of the Permanent Forum, she said.
The Health Ministry’s Pharmaceutical Crime Unit is located at at 9Rehov Eliav, Jerusalem, telephone (02) 655-1772/4, fax (02) 655-1776and e-mail at modin@eliav.health.gov.il