New plain packaging bill raises counterfeiting fears


Illicit trade in all its forms - counterfeiting, piracy, smuggling and adulteration - has stretched its tentacles around the world, affecting the economy, health and safety of nations.

Counterfeit products alone generate over $250 billion for organised crime every year; additionally, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Organised Crime, this black market may be financing other more sinister forms of armed crime. Khoo Boon Hui, former president of Interpol, said about two years ago that some activities related to counterfeit and pirated products and their proceeds may be passing into the hands of terrorists groups.

Special attention should be paid to the increased number of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, as half of the drugs sold online are fake, and 30% of the medication marketed worldwide also consist of counterfeit drugs, according to the World Health Organisation. Pharmaceuticals are constantly targeted by counterfeiters, regardless of the damage they may cause to the health of consumers.  

Panama, a country whose economic driver is trade, has not been able to escape from this harsh reality. In 2013 authorities seized more than $132 billion of counterfeit goods, including clothing, foods, drugs, agricultural products and tobacco.

Moreover, the authorities of a neighbouring country, Colombia, reported that “the Directorate of National Taxes and Customs of Colombia asserts that the smuggled goods entering this country, estimated at $7 billion, come mostly from Panama” (as published by the Panamanian newspaper Crítica last year).

Additionally, the National Customs Authority recognised that there was a great deal of smuggling at the border between Panama and Costa Rica, where a large variety of goods, ranging from rice and eggs to cows and pigs, pass the border illegally.

Further, according to the March 2015 issue of the magazine Mercados y Tendencias, in 2013 70% of the cigarettes consumed by Panamanians were smuggled. In this respect, Panama is currently considering a bill that seeks to make cigarette packs generic (plain packaging), with no graphic brand elements, just the brand name. However, one may wonder whether the bill might not be counterproductive, as it will certainly lead to more smuggling and counterfeiting. Further, what will happen to IP rights and to the consumers' rights to choose a legal product based on clear visible differences among different options?

Since the identification of the problem is the first step towards finding a solution, the abovementioned data show that people in Panama are aware of the scourge of illicit trade. Active steps should thus be taken.

The best thing to do is not to become quiet accomplices of these activities by buying counterfeit, pirated or smuggled products. Another step is to make the problem more visible; counterfeiting is a crime, which in turn fuels organised crime.

This problem must thus be tackled, and everybody has a part to play. The authorities will continue to conduct seizures, but illicit trade will continue to increase if consumers do not report it and fail to act.

Marissa Lasso de la Vega F, Alfaro Ferrer & Ramirez, Panama

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