LOS ANGELES (CN) – Los Angeles is taking legal action against eight defendants after a multi-agency investigation found that thousands of misbranded and counterfeit medications were sold to the public.
Flanked by a table covered with dozens of counterfeit versions of medications such as Viagra and Diprospan, City Attorney Mike Feuer said at a news conference Wednesday that three lawsuits filed last week in Los Angeles County Superior Court are meant to protect the public from the health risks associated with consuming fake medications purchased from unlicensed vendors.
Counterfeit drugs may contain dangerous, perhaps fatal levels of substances such as arsenic or lead, Feuer said.
The fake medications may also contain too much or too little of the active ingredients in medication that patients purchase to alleviate pain and other ailments.
“The sellers of these pharmaceuticals are not interested in patients,” Feuer said. “They are only interested in profit at the expense of patients.”
The lawsuits stem from an investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department, FBI and Health Authority Law Enforcement Task Force.
Feuer said it was “one of the largest investigations into illegal sales ever” in the United States.
The investigation found that counterfeit medications are arriving in the U.S. primarily from Mexico and El Salvador, according to Feuer, and an estimated over 440,000 illegal doses of counterfeit drugs are currently on the illegal market in Los Angeles.
Last week’s lawsuits come nearly a year after Los Angeles filed a complaint against Dulcería El Venado, a storefront selling candy and piñatas, for allegedly selling counterfeit pharmaceuticals, including the injectable anti-inflammatory drug Diprospan and narcotics that are illegal without a prescription.
Feuer’s office has also filed a 165-page federal lawsuit last week against nine pharmaceutical companies over the opioid crisis.
According to that complaint, the drug companies intentionally misled doctors and patients about the appropriate uses, risks,and safety of opioid drugs and downplayed the high risk of addiction.
Top executives of the nation’s leading drug distributors testified under oath before Congress on Tuesday that their companies didn’t contribute to the deadly opioid epidemic.
Fake medicines are a widespread global public health threat, according to the World Health Organization, which reported last November that one in 10 medical products in low and middle-income countries is counterfeit or below standards.
“Falsified medicines either fail to treat or poison patients, prolonging or worsening illnesses that can lead to disability or loss of life,” the report said.
Counterfeit medications can also undermine trust in health care systems and health care professionals, the WHO said.
On Wednesday, Feuer urged the public not to purchase medication over the internet or be lured by private, unlicensed vendors who sell at lower prices.
“Don’t buy meds or get an injection if there isn’t a licensed pharmacist involved,” Feuer said. “Don’t be fooled.”
Investigators say they found over 75,000 doses of illegal, misbranded and counterfeit pharmaceuticals in the home of Catalina Campos Melchor and Jose Antonio Vasquez de la Luz, who are named as defendants in a complaint filed May 2.
Melchor and Vasquez allegedly sold fake prescription medications through their online business Magic Blue LLC, another defendant.
Beginning in 2010, defendants Flavia Maria Rodriguez and Salvador Enrique Velasco Sanchez traveled repeatedly to El Salvador to purchase misbranded, illegal medications in order to sell them in Los Angeles, according to another lawsuit dated May 3.
Rodriguez and Sanchez, husband and wife, stored the counterfeit drugs in their home and distributed them to customers in Houston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Reno and Bakersfield, the lawsuit states.
According to another May 3 lawsuit, defendants Cesar Estuardo Acosta, Hugo Gonzalez Nava, and Iris Anabella Gonzales sold counterfeit medications out of their storefronts Tienda Quetzal Nava and Variedades Queztal Nava since at least 2015.
In some instances, employees at both storefronts offered to inject customers with counterfeit medications for a small fee, according to the complaint.
Feuer said future criminal prosecutions will target those who prey on the public. He declined to offer a timetable for such action.
“If you’re engaged in these illegal sales, this team will be knocking on your door next,” he said.