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Revealed: The Illegal Medicines NZers Import

“Patients shop internationally when the health system can’t provide what they need,” says Mark Blackham.

Each year the Government intercepts around 8,000 packages of unregistered prescription medicines that New Zealanders try to bring into the country because they are unfunded by Pharmac, in short supply, more expensive here, or difficult to access on prescription. Pharmac, in short supply, more expensive here, or difficult to access on prescription.

BlacklandPR Director and expert in medicine public relations, Mark Blackham, has released statistics from an Official Information Act (OIA) request, that illustrate the keenness of New Zealanders to access medicines easily or cheaply.

“Behind these figures are thousands of stories of desperation for better health. There is a large gap between what patients seek and what the health system provides,” Blackham says.

This is the first time a snapshot of intercepted medicine imports has been compiled and publicized since a 2011[1] study analysed data from 2007.

Close to half of all intercepted medicines over the period are antibiotics and treatments for erectile dysfunction.

The single most intercepted packages – 23% of all detained medicines since 2017 - are prescription antibiotics. Over 90% of them are destroyed. Antibiotics were also the most common subsidised medicines imported in 2007.

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The number of antibiotic imports is steadily rising each year. They are readily available without prescription in many Asian[2] and African, and some EU countries, and easily ordered over the internet. Some antibiotics like amoxicillin are currently in short supply in New Zealand[3].

The second most intercepted packages – 22% of all detained medicines since 2017 – are prescription medicines for erectile dysfunction (ED). The number of these medicines intercepted has fallen 75% since 2018, when it was most intercepted medicine.

Blackham says the slump mirrors increased availability of ED treatments over the counter (OTC) - evidence that imports are a direct response to availability and costs of medicines in NZ.

“When medicines are easily available, especially over the counter, or well-funded by Pharmac, patients are not forced to buy from overseas sources.”

The 2011 study found that although 78% of public-imported medicines imported in 2007 were available in New Zealand, less than half were subsidised by Pharmac.

“Price appears to be a big driver behind many attempts to import medicines,” says Blackham.

Medicines for serious illnesses were consistent throughout the period. These include treatments for illnesses like diabetes and hyperthyroidism, respiratory disorders and asthma.

There was a fall in intercepted packages of medicines for heart disease, insomnia, and mental health. There were improvements in locally available treatments over the same period.

“When treatment and access improve, and medicines become more available and funded, the number of attempted imports drops,” Blackham says.

Comparison with 2007

The 2011 study looked at interceptions from July to December 2007 – almost 4000 packages. The current annual average is proportionality similar (8,000 packages a year) now that the volume of erectile dysfunction medicines has fallen. But interceptions are steadily climbing by a few hundred packages each year.

Other insights

Customs estimated in 2018[4] that it intercepts 54,000 mail items each year, of about 22m incoming packages (14% of intercepts but 0.2% of all mail).

Although package profiling helps target illegal mail, it is very likely that the volume of medicine packages making it into patient’s hands is at least tens of thousands annually.

Intercepted medicines for mental health have fallen steadily over the period of data, possibly linked to easier availability of medicines, and doctors more willing to prescribe in a climate of higher awareness of mental health matters.

A steady category over the period was Nootropics – medicines used to improve or otherwise alter cognitive function. These detained medicines likely included amphetamines such as Ritalin, Adderall, and Modafinil. They may include compounds that affect neurotransmitters, such as racetams, which boost memory in people with brain injuries or age-related cognitive decline.

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Copy of OIA can be found online here.

[1] Sheridan J, Kelly F, Oughton J, Al-Jubbawey A, Grey M, Hussein S, Jayetileke E, Mehta M, Nair S. Importation of prescription medicines into New Zealand: a snapshot of intercepted products. Int J Clin Pharm. 2011 Feb;33(1):80-7. doi: 10.1007/s11096-010-9457-y. Epub 2011 Jan 13. PMID: 21365399.

[2] Police estimated in 2016 that half of intercepted medicines are sent from India. https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/health/2018/04/kiwis-buying-drugs-on-dark-web-warned-it-s-not-worth-the-risk.html

[3] https://pharmac.govt.nz/medicine-funding-and-supply/medicine-notices/amoxicillin

[4] https://www.customs.govt.nz/globalassets/documents/oia/complaints-and-compensation-regarding-parcels-opened-at-the-border-by-customs.pdf

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