PARIS (Reuters) - Counterfeit drugs have become a $200-billion-a-year industry and the 176-nation World Customs Organization (WCO) will sign a declaration later this month to fight the scourge, an official said on Thursday.
Fake or substandard versions of medicines are often hidden in cargoes sent on circuitous routes to mask their country of origin.
"We have more fakes than real drugs in the market," said Christophe Zimmermann, the WCO's anti-counterfeiting and piracy coordinator. "In 2007-2008 alone, it rose 596 percent."
Pharmacies and back street merchants in Africa sell fake medicines at rock-bottom prices.
The World Trade Organization says fake anti-malaria drugs kill 100,000 Africans a year and the black market deprives governments of 2.5-5 percent of their revenue.
The Brussels-based WCO represents customs operations globally and has joined with former French president's Jacques Chirac's foundation to raise awareness at upper echelons to curtail the illicit industry.
Spurred by Chirac's foundation, 176 national customs chiefs will sign a declaration on June 24 to ban the making and marketing of counterfeit drugs, Zimmermann told Reuters.
Fake medicines often contain the wrong or toxic ingredients and pose a growing health threat worldwide, especially in poor countries where drugs are sold to treat conditions such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV.
"If these subjects are not dealt with and strong action not taken, they will be a source of conflict," said Catherine Joubert, director general of the Fondation Chirac, adding that so far 30 groups had signed the declaration.
Getting the WCO's 176 members on board will lend legitimacy to proposals to revamp obsolete legislation and improve coordination between enforcement agencies, Zimmermann said.
Western Europeans spend an estimated 10.5 billion euros ($14.3 billion) a year on illicitly sourced medicines, according to a Pfizer-sponsored survey published in February.
In a sign Europe is taking the issue seriously too, justice ministers on the Council of Europe are set to ratify a convention on counterfeit medicines in Istanbul this November.
Editing by Mark Heinrich