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Protecting the Public Health

The FDA and several pharmaceutical companies have taken the initiative to use RFID to combat drug counterfeiting and protect consumers.
By Mark Roberti
Nov 22, 2004Privacy advocates and some consumers assume that because RFID will benefit big business it will be bad for consumers. This is the theme of numerous e-mails I receive from individual consumers concerned about the technology. I often write back and say that RFID will deliver many benefits to consumers. At the top of the list I send them is protecting people from counterfeit drugs, which are useless at best and deadly at worst. That's why I was very pleased that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and several pharmaceutical manufacturers stepped up the plate last week and announced initiatives designed to combat counterfeiting and protect the public.

The FDA announced that it has relaxed a range of labeling and manufacturing practice regulations that were hampering RFID trials (see FDA Clears Way for RFID Tagging). The FDA says that counterfeiting of drugs is a growing problem that must be addressed. It hasn't issued a mandate, but believes that RFID is one of several tools that can help by enabling companies to create an electronic pedigree, which can authenticate and track medicines from the manufacturing plant to the retail pharmacy.

Coinciding with the FDA’s announcement, Pzifer announced plans for an RFID project to ship cases and retail packages of Viagra with passive RFID technology by the end of 2005. Viagra is one of the most counterfeited medicines in the United States. GlaxoSmithKline said it will begin using RFID tags in the next 12 to 18 months on at least one product deemed susceptible to counterfeiting.

Purdue Pharma announced that it is already moving to item-level tagging. Last week, it began putting RFID labels on 100-tablet bottles of its OxyContin prescription pain killer tablets (see Purdue Pharma Tags OxyContin). The aim is to comply with Wal-Mart's requirement that all bottles of Schedule 2 narcotics shipped to its Bentonville pharmacy warehouse be tagged and to establish a leadership position in moving the industry toward RFID tracking.

In the United Kingdom, six manufacturers are working together on a pharmaceutical RFID and bar-code pilot to see if the technologies can be used to detect dispensing errors and counterfeit drugs before they reach patients (see Six U.K. Drugmakers Pilot RFID).

Pharmaceutical companies might not realize a short-term return on investment from tagging drugs. But if one life is saved because a dispensing error was avoided or dangerous counterfeit drugs were intercepted, then clearly the technology would be worth deploying. The FDA and these companies are doing the right thing in working together to secure the supply of drugs. Consumers are the ones that will ultimately benefit from the leadership position they are taking today.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below.

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