Bob Tilling, Kallik

From TikTok Trends To Counterfeit Drugs: How Better Labeling Systems Can Help

By Bob Tilling
Bob Tilling, Kallik

Bob Tilling, VP of Global Sales at Kallik, delves into dupe culture and its link to counterfeit drugs, and explains how developments in label management can foil illicit traders. 

 Dupes of goods like make-up, homewares or groceries are fueling viral social media trends as money-savvy consumers clamor to get their hands on them. The term ‘dupe’ might have made its way into the lexicon as a way to describe anything from generic, but perfectly legal, copycats of big brands, to ones that are a little more suspect.

As long as these products fall into the former camp, consumers can be sure they are at least generally safe, even if they aren’t always as effective or cutting-edge as the originals they emulate. For brands, there is the potential to damage reputation although, conversely, in the age of social media, dupe culture can also help to keep premium products front-of-mind.

Pharmaceutical companies certainly aren’t immune from dupe culture, either. And what is worrying is the damaging impact they could have on human health and behavior.

With newly-launched and/or branded medicines commanding a high price, a shadowy market of overseas manufacturers has emerged, undermining years of investment in R&D, testing, production and marketing by legitimate drugs manufacturers.

This isn’t about authorized generics, like standard painkillers, which have long been produced in India and China in accordance with FDA regulations, but the darker counterfeit drugs entering the supply chain at an alarming speed.

These manufacturers might willfully hoodwink FDA inspectors or bypass legitimate healthcare supply chains completely by selling anything from ineffective to dangerous products, such as synthetic opioids, on the dark web. Suppliers who convincingly misappropriate artwork and artwork labeling can deceive members of the public and even pharmacists and clinicians, especially in a busy healthcare setting.

The Rise of Dupes 

So powerful and pervasive has social media become that as many as 85% of Gen-Z consumers say that it influences their purchasing decisions.

The hashtag ‘#dupe’ is now so ubiquitous that it’s easy to see how someone could be swayed into buying cut-price drugs without knowing the side effects. Compared to other generations, Gen-Z is also less likely to get their news from traditional news sources, so they may be more susceptible to unregulated content.

Behind this content are health and fitness influencers who are all-too-often unqualified and unlicensed, potentially spreading misinformation about the benefits of drugs, diets and treatments, and diverting people from proper treatments.

These influencers are often particularly appealing to vulnerable young people who are won over by promises of rapid weight loss. Even if they recognize the risks—and there have been countless reports of deaths due to diet pills over the years—the short-term rewards are attractive. Furthermore, in a world where branding is everything, a copycat product that looks convincing and is endorsed by an influencer could be enough to allay their concerns.

Still fresh in the minds of many is the explosion of interest in Ozempic dupes at the start of this year. As celebrities opened up about their use of Ozempic, normally prescribed to treat diabetes, influencers began recommending the appetite suppressant Berberine, described by some TikTokers as ‘nature’s Ozempic’ or an ‘Ozempic dupe.’ This prompted fears that people will choose the cheaper copy, even though evidence of its efficacy is limited. There might also be potential side effects that should be discussed with a clinician first.

Without medical insurance, Ozempic is significantly more expensive than Berberine, and the latter is readily available online and in drug stores. For the 38% of Americans skipping medical care due to cost, supplements like Berberine can be an attractive prospect when they would actually benefit from doctor-prescribed Ozempic and careful monitoring.

Defining the Dupes

In the murky waters of counterfeits and dupes, the two terms might be used interchangeably. The latter, as we have seen, may be ethically dubious and contravene intellectual property law at times but is not necessarily illegal in the way that counterfeits are. Still, the two are linked in that demand for dupes can fuel demand for counterfeits too, as consumers become used to buying what they want online.

Furthermore, without proper oversight across the supply chain, unapproved ingredients can make their way into otherwise legitimate drugs. The World Health Organization (WHO) has raised concerns about sub-standard or out of specification medicines, and ones that are unregistered and/or unlicensed. Both dupes and counterfeits are available on websites that look legitimate, and as many as 50% of drugs sold online are thought to be fake.

Efforts to combat counterfeit drugs have stepped up in recent years—not an easy task given the complexities of international supply chains and the logistics involved in inspection. Cooperation across borders is clearly needed, including action from law enforcement agencies and governments in countries where counterfeits are an increasing problem. Earlier this year, authorities in India reportedly canceled or suspended the licenses of 76 drug companies in a crackdown on fake products. But there’s still a long way to go.

From Transparency to Trust

Healthcare practitioners must be on the guard both against illicit drugs entering the supply chain, and the fact that patients might be using dupes or counterfeits, as well as controlled drugs, in a way that isn’t prescribed. Nurses, for instance, are often the first to discover any issues with the authenticity of a product including labeling issues.

The pharmaceuticals industry also plays a critical role in providing assurances that their products are made, labeled and distributed in line with regulatory requirements.

With the benefits of transparency that digital technology brings, developments in product artwork labeling can help to slow down counterfeit drugs manufacturers.

Labels and artwork can be the first line of defense in identifying illicit products. As the WHO states, many can be uncovered by spelling and grammar errors, and different manufacture/expiry dates on the inner and outer packaging.

Watermarking and holograms have gone a long way in tackling some of the supply chain complexities that leaves the industry vulnerable to fraud, but greater transparency is still needed to tackle comprehensive and convincing counterfeits.

Automated LAM (labelling and artwork management) software can help manufacturers achieve this by giving them visibility at every stage of a product’s lifecycle, even in a complex international supply chain. It allows companies to create an audit trail to ensure full transparency and traceability of every action and ingredient.

Since errors and poor spelling are a sign of a counterfeit or substandard product, a clear, accurate and consistent label reassures both patients and clinicians alike that a product is authentic. Automation and the use of pre-approved dynamic templates can remove the need for human intervention, reducing the risk of error and making it more difficult for anyone to maliciously tamper with labeling.

It’s no surprise that the major pharmaceutical companies are now using LAM software to incorporate ‘hidden’ features into product packaging designs in a bid to distinguish themselves from the counterfeiters, without creating something else for them to copy. That said, if the counterfeiters do find a way to emulate a particular feature design, teams are able to move quickly in creating a new version that can be rolled out seamlessly across multiple territories. Doing this manually would take weeks and there is an added risk of errors.

Artwork and artwork labeling is most effective when it’s an integrated part of a business’ operation, including anti-counterfeit measures. Automating this process helps uniformity and ensure compliance with the latest legal, regulatory, marketing and manufacturing standards across territories.



About The Author

Bob Tilling, Kallik