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The number of illegal shipments of medicines seized by the Federal Customs Authorities has been systematically published for several years. In 2008, the total was 687, which already rose to 1,154 in 2009. In 2010, customs units reported 1,861 cases of suspicious imports of medicines to Swissmedic, the Swiss Agency for Therapeutic Products. This corresponds to an increase of 61% compared to the previous year, and to a figure that has tripled since 2008.
Last year, Swissmedic initiated administrative proceedings leading to financial penalties in 1,735 cases, and destroyed 81% of the shipments following the proceedings, for health safety reasons. In more severe cases, where it can be assumed that goods that are dangerous to health are being imported with a view to their resale, Swissmedic also initiates penal proceedings against the person ordering them.
The shipments seized by the Swiss customs came from 72 different countries. Most of them reached Switzerland from the following regions:
Western Europe (including UK, Germany, Greece, Portugal) 35%
Asia (without India, e.g. Thailand, China, Turkey) 9%
Tropical island states (Vanuatu, Seychelles) 3%
North America 2%
The following product categories were those that were most frequently seized by the competent authorities:
Erectile stimulants 33%
Slimming products 19%
Muscle building products 9%
Potentially addictive medicines, e.g. sleeping pills 6%
Psychotropic drugs 3%
Hormonal skin-lightening and tanning products 3%
India as a country of origin
Over recent years, an ongoing increase in medicinal products from India has been observed (2009: 38%, 2008: 30%). In addition to the 45% of shipments that arrived directly from India, many packages from Western Europe also contained medicines that were manufactured in India. These prescription-only tablets or capsules were nearly all delivered without packaging or patient information sheets, meaning that the consumer received no dosage instructions or information regarding precautions to be taken, restrictions to use, or possible side effects. Laboratory results have repeatedly confirmed that around half of the products in question have serious quality defects; for instance the active substance amount is wrongly stated, or a non-declared active substance has been added.
Websites from which Indian medicines can be ordered can mislead interested users into thinking they are ordering reliable products from European countries. Even when the products advertised are stated as being original European medicines, those ordering them usually receive low-quality imitations made in India. Those operating the websites are usually individuals who have no expert medical knowledge, and distribute these often dangerous products unscrupulously, for purely commercial reasons. They mainly operate out of states with which Switzerland has no mutual legal assistance agreement, meaning that no punitive action can be taken.
Furthermore, it is rarely stated that these parcels will be shipped from Asia. It is usually falsely claimed that the order will not be the subject of any customs problems and will, for instance, be sent from one of Switzerland's neighbouring countries. Despite these deceptive claims on the part of the distributor, it is the person making the order who will see the goods destroyed and who will face administrative costs of at least CHF 300.-.
We are therefore once again issuing an urgent warning against the ordering of medicinal products from the Internet. Obtaining medicines from controlled Swiss sources is the only way of guaranteeing that health will not be placed at risk, and that the quality of the products corresponds to legal requirements and patients' expectations.