Consumers in the United States are largely unaware of the dangers of purchasing counterfeit drugs from online pharmacies. This naivety is contributing to what is becoming a major public health issue. In most cases, fake drugs are not safe, nor are they effective. These drugs can lead to greater sickness or even death.
At first, counterfeit drugs were primarily lifestyle drugs, especially Viagra, but they have expanded to include all types of therapeutic medicines including insulin, cancer and cardiac drugs. While counterfeit drugs sometimes end up in the pharmaceutical supply chain, the primary source of counterfeit drugs is online pharmacies. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy found that 97 percent of the Internet pharmacies it examined are not compliant with federal or state laws as well as industry standards.
The FDA has the task of making sure that pharmaceuticals are safe and effective, but this task is becoming increasingly difficult with consumers bypassing traditional sources of medication and purchasing from rogue Internet pharmacies posing as legitimate businesses. Consumers are motivated by lower prices and the ability to obtain prescription drugs without a prescription. When it comes to buying drugs from these online pharmacies, consumers should heed the old Latin phrase of caveat emptor: "let the buyer beware."
The FDA notes that one in four Internet users has bought from online pharmacies. To educate consumers about the dangers of purchasing prescription drugs online, the FDA has launched a campaign entitled "BeSafeRx: Know Your Online Pharmacy."
What exactly should consumers know before purchasing prescriptions online? Know where the online pharmacy is actually located and from where it is obtaining its drugs.
Many Internet pharmacies leave the impression that they are located in Canada and are selling legitimate brand-name drugs that have been manufactured in Canada. However, these claims of legitimacy are often blatantly false. Many, if not most, of the drugs are not approved by the FDA and are not safe or effective. They are often not even approved by the Canadian government. That is because medicines that are not used domestically in Canada are not subject to the scrutiny of Canada's safety laws. Therefore, drugs from Canadian Internet pharmacies can come from anywhere in the world. This has made Canadian Internet pharmacies the primary supplier of counterfeit drugs to the United States.
One "Canadian" online pharmacy has been linked to fake Avastin. This same "pharmacy" has blamed the U.S. government for trying to stop it by stating on its website, "Washington wants to SEIZE AND DESTROY your safe, affordable imported drugs." The truth is that Internet drugs are often neither safe nor affordable. In many cases, they can harm consumers because they do not contain the active ingredients to resolve a health issue, but they may contain harmful ingredients such as bacteria, toxic yellow paint, floor wax and antifreeze.
A counterfeit inhaler for treatment of pediatric cystic fibrosis was found to contain contaminated bacteria that went directly into the lungs of unsuspecting children. In another case, an injected fake cancer drug contained only tap water. A counterfeit of the weight loss drug, Alli, contained a controlled substance, sibutramine, and not the proper active ingredient orbistat. Sibutramine can interact harmfully with other medications, and the FDA has recommended that the drug "should not be used in patients with heart failure, hypertension, and irregular heartbeats."
Although Internet pharmacies often boast that they can save consumers up to 75 percent, consumers often receive a product that offers them zero benefits and may cause them more harm than good. Tap water or bacteria at a discount of 75 percent of the price of the legitimate drug is no bargain for consumers.
In addition to scrutinizing the location of an online pharmacy, consumers should also be leery of any company that will distribute prescription drugs without a prescription. Some of these Internet sites are linked to terrorist groups and organized crime, and thus pose a threat to national and international security. In fact, profits from the sale of fake drugs are greater than profits from the sale of heroin and cocaine. In an attempt by these sites to make even more profit, consumers may face credit card fraud, identity theft and computer viruses as "side effects" of an online drug purchase.
So, what is the real price of an online prescription? Caveat Emptor.
This piece was coauthored by Joseph P. Fuhr Jr. Ph.D., Professor of Economics at Widener University and Senior Fellow at The American Consumer Institute