WASHINGTON — If the U.S. government catches a supply of counterfeit prescription drugs, current law does not allow them to be destroyed, but instead returned to the counterfeiters.

That makes no sense to Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and other lawmakers who have introduced a bill to not only destroy the fake prescription drugs, but also establish a better system to track the real ones.

The Safeguarding America's Pharmaceuticals Act would create government regulations for pharmaceutical companies to record every stage of a pharmaceutical shipment and track the drugs from the manufacturer to the doctor's office or pharmacy.

"UPS and FedEx do this now. This is not new technology," Matheson said. "We are talking about people's lives here."

Matheson said the issue of fake pills ending up in patients' medicine cabinets is a "growing problem" and could get worse without government regulation.

"The victims are often people who need real, quality drugs the most — cancer patients, AIDS patients and people being treated for heart disease," Matheson said in a statement.

"Even though bogus drugs account for a small fraction of the 3 billion prescriptions filled in this country each year, it's time to fill the gaps in our regulatory system before the situation gets worse."

Matheson said the counterfeiters have grown so sophisticated that fake drugs can look virtually identical to the real thing, down to the imprint on an individual pill.

"People need to know that when they take a prescribed pill it is real, undiluted and not laced with phony ingredients," Matheson said. "By implementing these steps now, we can go a long way towards safeguarding the medicine people need to get well and stay healthy."

Matheson's office pointed out that the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest predicts that the worldwide market for counterfeit drugs will grow to $75 billion annually by the year 2010.

Matheson said some experts say it is more lucrative to sell a counterfeit drug than a narcotic. He said states already are working on ways to prevent fake drugs from getting into people's hands, but now one federal standard to address the problem is appropriate.

Matheson said the bill is not specifically saying whether companies should use barcodes or other tracking systems, just that something needs to be used because the rules on tracking drugs have not been updated in 20 years.

Matheson is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Health Subcommittee, which will have a hearing on the bill Thursday.

E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com