The labels are called radio-frequency identification. As in automated highway toll collection systems, they consist of computer chips embedded into stickers that emit numbers when prompted by a nearby radio signal. In a supermarket, they might enable a scanner to read every item in a shopping cart at once and spit out a bill in seconds, though the technology to do that is still some distance off.
For drug makers, radio labels hold the promise of cleaning up the wholesale distribution system, where most counterfeit drugs enter the supply chain, often through unscrupulous employees at the small wholesale companies that have proliferated in some states...
...Costs are still far too high for individual consumer goods, like the amber bottles that pharmacies use to dispense pills to individuals. But prices are expected to plunge once radio labels become popular, so drug makers represent an important set of early adopters.
Privacy-rights advocates have expressed reservations about radio labels, worrying that employers and others will be able to learn what medications people are carrying in their pockets. Civil-liberties groups have voiced similar concerns about ubiquitous use of the technology in the marketplace. But under the current initiatives, the technology would not be used at the retail level.
At first I didn't think counterfeiting was a big enough deal to warrant this intrusion. But then I recalled all the spam I get for Xanax and Vicodin... not to mention those phosphodiesterase-5 inhibitors.
Counterfeit drugs are still comparatively rare in the United States, but federal officials say the problem is growing. Throughout the 1990's, the F.D.A. pursued about five cases of counterfeit drugs every year. In each of the last several years, the number of cases has averaged about 20, but law-enforcement officials say that figure does not reflect the extent of the problem.
Last year, more than 200,000 bottles of counterfeit Lipitor made their way onto the market. In 2001, a Sunnyvale, Calif., pharmacist discovered that bottles of Neupogen, an expensive growth hormone prescribed for AIDS and cancer patients, were filled only with saltwater.
So, siren-watchers, your medicine cabinet won't start broadcasting your prescriptions to people passing by with RFID scanners. But the concept is a little less outlandish today than it was yesterday.