National Geographic shines light on 'dark trade'

Could illicit trade--involving everything from handbags to humans to counterfeit pharmaceuticals to weapons-grade uranium--be an even greater threat to our way of life than terrorism? Dr. Mois•s Na•m, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, believes that could be the case. A new National Geographic Special, Illicit: The Dark Trade, which aired April 16 on PBS television stations, estimated the global value of this trade to be as high as $3 trillion, with some assessments believing it represents 10 percent of the world's trade. As the accompanying photo of counterfeit drugs seized in Bogota, Columbia, shows, counterfeit packaging is part of this illicit trade. (Photo by Richard Numeroff/©2008 National Geographic Television.)

The television film, based on Na•m's book, Illicit, shows a primitive-looking production line in China where counterfeiters use converted button-pressing machines and cheap labor to punch out large volumes of pills that are subsequently dried under light bulbs in a modified cupboard.

Another pharmaceutical example shown occurred in Panama, where about 100 people died from a mysterious illness sourced to a cough syrup that had been unwittingly distributed to the poor and elderly throughout that country via its social security system. A massive recall of more than 100,000 bottles was launched. A toxic ingredient was eventually traced to a company in China that substituted a cheaper chemical cousin in place of commonly used glycerin.

"We've seen the evolution of counterfeit prescription medicines move from the local chemical guy to organized crime, international narcotics traffickers in Columbia, syndicates in China, [and] drug trafficking organizations in Mexico," says Aaron Graham in the film. Graham, vice president and chief security officer for Purdue Pharma, has served as an undercover narcotics agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and recently delivered a compelling presentation on counterfeit pharmaceuticals at the Brand-Protection Packaging Forum.

"This is not amateur hour in international crime," he says in the film. "These are sophisticated, intelligent, innovative people. We all agree that the bad guys always have the advantage because they don't have rules and they don't have regulations."

In the film, Na•m says, "Governments are failing because they don't work effectively with other governments, they don't move as swiftly as the traffickers, [and] they're trapped inside their borders."
The 60-minute film is available for $24.95 on DVD. Call 1-800/PLAY-PBS (1-800/752-9727).

--By Jim Butschli, Editor
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