BEIRUT: The whereabouts of a batch of counterfeit Xanax seized by authorities remain unknown, according to a prominent health industry figure, with the drugs potentially posing a risk to consumers. “Last year ... the Lebanese Army caught a pickup truck outside Beirut full of fake Xanax,” former MP Ismael Sukkarieh told The Daily Star, referring to the commonly prescribed anti-anxiety drug. “They didn’t do anything about it.”
“A few months ago, it appeared that a good amount [of Xanax] also was sent [to Lebanon], but it didn’t enter,” said Sukkarieh, a doctor and a longtime advocate of tightening national controls on medicinal drugs.
Authorities reportedly seized the shipment, but its current whereabouts remain unclear, according to Sukkarieh. “We don’t know what happened to it,” he said.
Speaking to The Daily Star, head of the Pharmacists Union Rabih Hassouneh said his body recently learned about the counterfeit drugs.
“We just heard about this two days ago and now we are conducting an investigation with the responsible persons at the Customs Department and the Health Ministry to check what is the real story,” he added.
The Health Ministry said it had no knowledge of the case, but admitted that fake drugs occasionally turned up on the Lebanese market.
“Some companies import Xanax illegally from Europe,” said Mohammad Yassine, an inspector of public health and a media coordinator for the ministry. “We cannot catch everybody.”
The Health Ministry tries to regulate the issue by conducting routine visits to pharmacies and verifying that the drugs being sold are from legitimate suppliers.
According to pharmacist Rana Kandar, most fake drugs bear evidence of their dubious origin. For example, she said, sometimes the expiration date on the shipment does not correspond with the date on the individual sachets of drugs, a telltale sign of a counterfeit product.
But Sukkarieh said counterfeiters had adopted advanced techniques to thwart inspectors. He pointed to a counterfeiting drug mafia that had emerged around the world, netting some $75 billion last year alone.
The only way to ensure the authenticity of a drug, he said, was to create a central lab where medications could be tested.
“I’m re-asking for the thousandth time to activate a central lab for drug control,” he said. “We are the only country in the whole world without a central lab.”
While most patients with a prescription for Xanax should not be at risk, those buying Xanax “on the street” ran the risk of buying a counterfeit product, said one pharmacist who wished to remain anonymous.
Counterfeit drugs are usually less effective than the real product, Kandar said, with unlicensed producers cutting costs by putting only small amounts of the active ingredients in each pill.
If a patient accustomed to taking heavy doses of Xanax switched to a counterfeit product, Sukkarieh added, they could experience withdrawal symptoms and even risk falling into a coma.