Illegally imported medicinal products in 2016: major risk among prescription-only medicines


At the request of Swissmedic, the Swiss Agency for Therapeutic Products, Swiss customs last year seized 1,028 shipments of illegally imported therapeutic products. This puts the total number at a similar level to the previous year (2015: 1,134). Potency preparations 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. Nearly half of all shipments originated from India.

The unauthorised import and use of prescription-only medicines such as sleeping tablets or antibiotics represents a risky practice from the perspective of health. Particularly worrying is the number of confiscated medicines for the treatment of acne, which, though still small, rose in 2016. Preparations containing the active ingredient isotretinoin harm unborn children and should never be used during pregnancy. Such treatments must therefore always be prescribed and closely monitored by a doctor.

Criminal suppliers on the Internet primarily use spam e-mails to advertise their ostensibly serious online shops selling "generic products at advantageous prices". In many cases, the medicines that are supplied have serious quality defects and arrive without a carton or package insert, which means that there are absolutely no warnings about side effects and precautions or information about the correct dosage. Counterfeit medicinal products frequently contain too high or too low a dose, or incorrect, undeclared or even no active substances.

Medical prescribing requires personal contact between patients and healthcare professionals

The use of prescription-only medicines without medical supervision represents a danger to health. Prescription-only medicines must always be dispensed and prescribed under the direction of a doctor. A doctor should always be consulted in the event of health problems such as protracted sleep disorders, stubborn infections or severe acne.

Origin of illegal imports by continent/country

  2016 2015
India 48%
Western Europe (incl. UK, Germany, Portugal) 21%
Asia (excluding India, primarily Thailand, China, Singapore, Cambodia) 13%
Eastern Europe 9%
Other countries 9%

Confiscated shipments by type of product

  2016 2015
Erectile stimulants 55% 51%
Sleeping tablets and tranquillisers 13,5% 15%
Medically important, prescription-only medicines 13% 9%
Slimming preparations 5% 13%
Hair growth preparations 2,5%
11% 12%

(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 with no, or at best inadequate, information on possible risks.

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