Friday, January 22, 2010

Counterfeits and Consumers

Consumers already have enough trouble trying to make responsible choices without adding the burden of worrying about avoiding counterfeit goods. Unfortunately, thanks to fact that people are flawed creatures, counterfeit products often invade the marketplace because their manufacturers hope to make a quick buck. While this is certainly unfair to legitimate manufacturers and trusting consumers of such commonly counterfeited things as handbags or watches, it can be deadly if the counterfeit product is a condom.

Of course, it's highly unlikely that anyone would choose to purchase fake condoms (we know that some less-discriminating people do make that choice for handbags and watches), but what happens if the packaging is good enough to fool an unsuspecting consumer into buying the fakes? That consumer runs the risk of contracting or spreading sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV.

When I saw the article, "China's Latest Scandal is Counterfeit Condoms," on today's LA Times website, I thought I'd investigate further. What I discovered is that the condom scandal is nothing new. The press has been talking about it for years. Here's a timeline of reporting about the issue, using just a sample of articles from various sources:

2005 March 17 - The BBC News reported that thousands of fake condoms had hit the market in the UK.

2006 December 4 - The Guardian published an article about counterfeit drugs that included this reference to counterfeit condoms:
A few years ago, Durex executives were astonished to discover pirated condoms bearing their brand name on the production line of a prospective Chinese partner's factory. "It sparked a discussion among the visitors about whether they had found the perfect supplier," said Calum MacLeod, a consultant to Durex at the time. "But from a corporate ethics point of view, it was not realistic."
2007 December 19 - cited condoms as one of many products on a list of high risk drug and medical items. The article also stated:
[Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael] Leavitt signed two agreements with the Chinese government last week that puts the onus on the Chinese and their manufacturers rather than the beleaguered inspectors of the dozen U.S. agencies responsible for imported goods. . . Despite the strong language of the accords and the report, Leavitt did not hail it as a victory or even a long-term cure. . . The Chinese grudgingly agreed to these accords in the face of a more than year-long public relations disaster and it may be difficult getting them to follow through because most reports out of the country reveal that agency leaders don't actually believe there is a serious problem.
2008 June 3 - Tu Salud, The Latino Wellness Magazine, reported about the discovery of sales of millions of fake Chinese condoms in discount stores in New York. (They referenced a May 5th Newsday story that's no longer available online.)

2009 November 11 - posted a story about a factory in Hunan Province that had manufactured more than two million counterfeit condoms in the previous eight months:
Four people were arrested at the factory which was distributing illicit condoms nationwide that provided little or no protection and carried the risk of both pregnancy and disease. . . Authorities say when they entered the factory they saw bare-chested employees using vegetable oil to lubricate the condoms and putting them into fiber bags without any sterilization.
2010 January 21 - The LA Times article I mentioned earlier references incidents dating back to 2008 and concludes with a comment about how the Chinese government has handled counterfeiting (italics are mine):
"Given the vast size and complexities of the society, it is not surprising that there continue to be problems with product quality," said Zha Daojiong, a professor at Peking University's School of International Studies. "Back in the early 1990s, the Chinese government repeatedly launched 'strike hard' campaigns -- throwing those involved in producing and selling below-quality products to years in jail.". . But, he added, proper monitoring systems cost money, resulting in higher prices. . ."It's impossible to have enhanced surveillance on the cheap," Zha said. "A genuine dialogue [needs] to take place between the government and the populace at large [about] the costs the average consumer is prepared to pay."
The Chinese government has been trying to stop the manufacture of these counterfeit products since at least the early 1900s according to this article, but I have no doubt that it's been an issue much longer than that. I also think it's safe to assume that there are plenty of credible articles in the press about Chinese counterfeit items that pre-date the few I've listed from the last five years. We've been adequately informed. But the significant issue now is that increased trade with China has resulted in the importing of many more types of items in much greater quantities than ever before. And if the general perception in China is that counterfeiting is not a significant problem, then the risks associated with buying certain Chinese products are substantial.

How do we cope with these kinds of threats? Making sure that we're aware of them through the work of a vigilant press is the first crucial step. Obviously, there are certain governmental restrictions that can be imposed on imports. More extensive and thorough safety inspections of imports can help, too. We live in a global economy, so we can't always buy American-made goods; also, some goods labelled as made in this country use parts or materials imported from other countries. And there's always the possibility that counterfeit products can be made right here, too. It's enough to kick a person's paranoia up a notch or two.

But I also think that the Chinese professor's observation in the LA Times article touches on part of the problem: are consumers always going to choose the least expensive option or will we be willing to pay more in order to get better (in this case, safer) products?

Lots of us are watching our spending more closely now because of the economic crisis that has affected the majority of our population. That means shopping for "bargains." But cheap isn't always a bargain. As a society, we need to make an important shift in our thinking and realize that buying fewer things of higher quality from trusted manufacturers (or, in the case of some products, from local sources) is better than buying lots of things of shoddy, or perhaps even unsafe, quality.

Consumer decisions are often more complicated than they seem on the surface, but there's nothing to debate when it comes to avoiding dangerous counterfeit products. We can't control all of the factors that allow them to get to market, but to be safe, we can and must make reasonably informed decisions when we're shopping for food, drugs and other medical items.

So, let's kick that paranoia back down where it belongs and remember that thoughtful consumers just do the best we can to avoid fakes. Like the song says, "Ain't nothin' like the real thing."

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo credit: seesky @ stock.XCHNG

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