Medicine theft in the EU: how does it happen?

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Theft of medicines is a widespread phenomenon throughout the world. However, it is only effectively countered in some countries, including the United Kingdom and Italy. This is why the European MEDI-THEFT project was born in 2021. Coordinated by AIFA, the project aims to spread good practices in combating the theft of medicines throughout the Union. The study The theft of medicines in the EU is part of this project. Conducted by the TRANSCRIME research center of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan, the study offers an overview of the current situation and the most widespread methods of drug theft.

Define the problem

There is no precise definition that explains what is meant when we talk about theft of medicines and medical devices. In fact, there are many behaviors and criminal conduct that fall into this field. First of all, the Medicrime Convention deals with them, i.e. the first European treaty on crimes relating to the production and distribution of medicines, issued by the Council of Europe (CoE) in 2010. According to Article 8 of this document, in fact, they fall within the definition of drug theft all those behaviors that are not included in that of counterfeiting.

Interpol also dealt with the problem, but gave a different definition. According to the Organization, in fact, we talk about theft of medicines when there is the production or distribution of counterfeit or falsified medicines and medical devices, through legal or illicit supply chains. The definition in particular concerns theft, fraud, illicit use, smuggling, illegal trade, money laundering and corruption.

Finally, a definition was also suggested by the MEDI-THEFT project itself. In this case, drug theft refers to any illegal removal of drugs or medical devices, usually perpetrated by organized criminal groups or networks, with the aim of reintroducing the stolen products into the legal supply chain or selling them on the black market.

Quantification of drug theft

Despite the difficulties caused by the lack of a common definition and the scarcity of available data, the research has managed to quantify the problem from different points of view. An initial evaluation concerns the number of thefts, with Italy, France, Spain and Finland in the top places, followed by Croatia, Iceland, Poland and the United Kingdom. Most of the national authorities participating in the project, however, consider this vision an underestimate of reality, precisely due to the scarcity of data.

The situation is very different, however, if we look at the data relating to the diffusion of news regarding the theft of medicines. Although Italy is still in first place, the rest of the ranking is dominated by Spain, Germany and Egypt. Everyone else gives very little media coverage to this problem.

A third point of view is that of the frequency of the various types of criminal events. From 2018 to 2020 there was a decrease in both actual thefts and counterfeiting of medicines. However, their illicit use is increasing. However, since these products often come from theft or fraud, the increase in the phenomenon probably hides a similar increase in other criminal actions, which are therefore once again underestimated. For example, there are numerous cases of medicines lost along the distribution chain, which however are not reported as theft nor managed as such.

Finally, if we consider the economic value of thefts, pharmaceutical products are in first place in terms of loss caused for the same quantity stolen.

Theft of medicines: the methods

The study also identifies seven major schemes used to perpetrate drug theft.

International illicit trade

Currently in decline thanks to the enforcement measures implemented, international illicit trade involves organized criminal networks. The aim is to steal large quantities of drugs generally with a high market value, to be reintroduced into the legal supply chain, usually in other countries. This type of theft can take advantage of the collaboration of corrupt employees and can occur at any point in the drug supply chain: in company warehouses or sorting centers, in pharmacies, especially hospital ones, or on trucks during distribution. Once stolen, the products usually enter parallel trade through falsified documents.

Theft on commission

Those who adopt this type of scheme, currently on the increase, are mainly organized groups, who steal small quantities of specific drugs to resell on the black market in countries where they are not available or can be found at higher prices. Health sector professionals often commission the thefts and the crimes mainly occur in hospital pharmacies, warehouses and sorting centres. A recent trend sees the thief take photographs or small quantities of product to the customer before carrying out the actual theft. Transportation is generally via postal service or personal luggage.

General theft

This scheme is mainly adopted by health professionals who take advantage of their network of acquaintances to steal large quantities of low-value drugs, to resell directly through legal channels or fake online pharmacies. Theft and subsequent sale are simplified by fewer controls involving these products. Those who are robbed are pharmacies, hospitals or vehicles involved in distribution, thanks to the less attention paid to these drugs. For example, thieves can take advantage of unattended trucks during a delivery or pose as relatives who want to visit a patient in hospital.

Recycling

In this case, it is not only new medicines that are stolen, but also expired specialties and waste that enters the counterfeit products sector. This type of theft is generally perpetrated by criminal organizations who send the stolen goods to specialized laboratories, even in non-European countries. Industry professionals are often also involved. Products are stolen especially from hospitals and other medical centers and counterfeiting increasingly begins immediately, with the falsification or exchange of labels and packaging. Newly marketed products are particularly subject to this type of theft, as they are not yet distributed in many countries.

Theft for the recreational sector

In this case the objects of crime are drugs that can be reused licitly or illicitly for recreational purposes. The sectors involved are therefore those of sport, fitness, beauty or adult entertainment, especially within the EU and at local level. Online trading is the main route through which stolen goods are resold, but there is also an offline market. The thefts are often committed by professionals from various sectors, who then resell the products directly or sell them to third parties. The thefts occur with the complicity of health specialists or by hiring real thieves and can take place in pharmacies, warehouses, hospitals or on means of transport during distribution.

Technical theft

Medical devices and equipment are also targeted by criminal organizations. This type of theft is aimed at reselling the goods both at European and non-EU level, both through legal and illegal channels. Thieves tend to be highly specialized, as the goods are often sophisticated and delicate. However, theft can be easier than that of medicines, given the less attention paid to the problem and the greater ease of transport and storage. It is mainly hospitals and doctors’ offices that are robbed, through break-ins at night or during the day, even with the complicity of staff members. The transport can then take place illegally with couriers or through legal postal services.

Theft of widely used material

Surgical masks. One example above all to explain this theft scheme that came to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic, which sees criminal organizations busy stealing large quantities of medical devices or personal protective equipment in great demand by the population. The sale of stolen goods can take place both illegally and through legal online and offline channels and by word of mouth. The theft generally involves small-sized and modest-value materials, which are stolen during transport or from warehouses, often with the complicity of staff members.