Illegally imported medicinal products in 2017: caution required with prescription-only medicines


At the request of Swissmedic, the Swiss Agency for Therapeutic Products, the Federal Customs Administration last year seized 1,060 shipments of illegally imported therapeutic products. This means that the total has risen slightly compared to the previous year (2016: 1,028). Erectile stimulants remain at the top of the list of illegally imported substances, followed by medicines with the potential for dependence (psychotropic agents, sleeping tablets and tranquillisers) and other medically important drugs.

As in 2016, the majority of illegal shipments were from India, with Singapore and Germany in second and third place. Shipments from Eastern Europe have increased, including a 40 percent rise in illegal imports from Poland.

Once again a large number of medically important medicinal products that are subject to strict prescribing limits (for example prescription-only antibiotics or the very strong painkiller tramadol) were confiscated. The unauthorised import of prescription-only medicinal products such as psychotropic agents, antibiotics or preparations for the treatment of acne, represents a severe risk to health.

Several shipments from the UK and Poland also contained melanotan. Allegedly a tanning agent, this substance produces primary side effects that are flu-like in nature and it can also damage the immune and cardiovascular systems.

Two confiscated packages from the Czech Republic containing counterfeit Reductil also deserve mention. This slimming agent was withdrawn from the market in almost all countries worldwide in 2009/2010 due to an unfavourable risk/benefit ratio. The counterfeit capsules were examined in Swissmedic’s laboratory, and were found to contain false active ingredients (caffeine and synephrine instead of the banned active substance sibutramine). Swissmedic notified the European (and other) therapeutic product regulatory agencies via its network.

Medicinal products can only be used safely if patients obtain expert advice in person. Swissmedic urges people to be particularly wary of online shops that offer prescription-only medicines without a prescription, often using the slogan “original preparations at low prices”. These shops are a front for generally quite sizable criminal organisations. They supply medicinal products with severe quality deficiencies and no carton or package insert, or counterfeit products that contain too high or too low a dose, or false, undeclared or even no active substances.

Origin of illegal imports by continent/country
  2017 2016


44,5 %
48 %
Western Europe (primarily Germany) 19,5 % 21 %
Asia (excluding India, primarily Singapore) 18 % 13 %
Eastern Europe 13 % 9 %
Other countries 5 % 9 %
Confiscated shipments by type of product
  2017 2016

Erectile stimulants

59 %

55 %

Medically important, prescription-only medicines

16 %

13 %

Sleeping tablets and tranquillisers
12 % 13,5 %

Slimming preparations

2,5 % 5 %

Hair growth preparations

1,5 % 2,5 %
Other 9 % 11 %
(all figures rounded)

When medicines are procured from unknown sources online, there is no guarantee that the package actually contains what is stated on the label. Using poor-quality counterfeit medicines always poses a major risk to health. People who make use of such sources jeopardise not only their health, but can also expect to have to pay costs. In serious cases they may even face criminal proceedings.

Swissmedic advises against purchasing and using unauthorised medicines offered in printed advertisements, promotional e-mails or via the Internet. Such products, including in particular preparations from Asia, usually come without any information on quality or possible risks.

Purchasing medicinal products from controlled sources is the only way of guaranteeing that their quality complies with requirements, and that there is no risk to health.

Last modification 08.02.2018

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