Exposing the Dangers of Illegal Online Pharmacies

Kate H. Gamble, Senior Editor
Published Online: Wednesday, November 23, 2011
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Most people might not perceive counterfeit medications as a serious and widespread problem. But in fact, the growing trend of buying drugs on illegal Web sites represents a “significant patient safety issue,” according to Carmen Catizone, MS, RPh, DPh, executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP).

Prescription medicines are among the most commonly counterfeited products, with worldwide sales exceeding $75 billion in 2010. It’s also the most dangerous form of counterfeiting, as not only can these products contain hazardous substances such as lead paint or animal poison, but they also do not include the FDA-approved amount of the active pharmaceutical ingredient. For patients who are taking drugs to treat a heart condition, infection, or allergy, this can be life-threatening.

To address this growing problem, the NABP has teamed up with Pfizer to launch a new initiative to raise awareness of the risks associated with counterfeit prescription drugs and to help patients learn how to safely buy medicines online.

“People are very comfortable using the Internet for other purchases,” said Catizone. “They don’t understand that just as watches and purses bought from untrusted sites can be fake, so can drugs.”

According to the NABP, 1 in 6 patients have purchased prescription drugs online, with convenience and cost savings cited as the most common factors. What consumers often don’t realize is that it can be extremely difficult to differentiate between real and fake Web sites—and medications. A review of more than 8000 sites that sell prescription drugs found that 96% appeared to be operating in conflict with pharmacy laws and practice standards, putting patients at risk of receiving counterfeit or adulterated medicines. Some of the medicines commonly counterfeited include treatments for cancer, hypertension, high cholesterol, allergies, infections, pain management, and erectile dysfunction—particularly Pfizer’s Viagra (sildenafil citrate).

A Harris Interactive study conducted by Pfizer found that although only 6% of men surveyed considered themselves extremely or very knowledgeable about determining the legitimacy of an online pharmacy, many were still likely to engage in risky online buying behaviors. According to the survey, 27% admitted to buying ED medicines from online pharmacies advertised by spam, and 36% bought medicine from sites that came up as the result of an online search.

In a separate analysis of 26 pharmacy Web sites that appeared in the top results for “buy Viagra” on 2 major search engines, Pfizer found that all of the analyzed pharmacies claiming to sell Viagra were operating illegally and 81% were selling a counterfeit version of the drug.

Not all online pharmacies, however, sell counterfeit medications, said Catizone. “There are legitimate sites, and it’s important that consumers know what to look for.”

Catizone advises those who are looking to purchase prescription drugs online to look for the NABP’s Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) seal, which indicates that it is a licensed pharmacy from which patients can buy FDA-approved medicines. Patients should then click on the seal to make sure it takes them back to a verification page before proceeding. Patients can find a list of US-based online pharmacies with VIPPS accreditation at www.VIPPSpharmacies.net.

Patients can also check with a pharmacist before purchasing drugs from an online pharmacy to make sure it is legitimate.

If pharmacists are approached by a patient with a medication they suspect may be fake, Catizone recommends that they ask the patient for the exact Web site where they purchased the drug. If it is a counterfeit site, pharmacists should advise the patient to return to his or her physicians and obtain a legitimate prescription.

The ultimate goal, he said, is to make it safer for patients to purchase prescription drugs online. “We’ll continue to work with groups like Pfizer to develop educational tools for patients and health care professionals to educate them on how to spot a fake drug or fake Web site,” said Catizone. NABP also aims to identify as many illegal or dangerous sites as possible, and work with credit card companies and banks to try to shut down funding for rogue sites.

NABP and Pfizer have developed a YouTube channel that offers a series of educational videos. Patients can also visit NABP’s site for information about the dangers of counterfeit medicines and tips on how to select a safe online pharmacy.

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