Pulling the Plug on Rogue Pharmacies

Kate H. Gamble, Senior Editor
Published Online: Monday, June 20, 2011
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Last week, rogue online pharmacies again made the headlines when an online pharmacy owner operating out of Texas was sentenced to 7 years in federal prison for trafficking and attempting to traffic a counterfeit version of the weight loss drug Alli (Orlistat). The drug contained a dangerous substitute ingredient that caused stroke in one victim.

The incident is the latest in a long line of many in which the sale of dangerous and counterfeit products through online advertising and social networks has put patients' health at risk. It is a trend that the Partnership for Safe Medicines (PSM) seeks to reverse. The non-profit organization has sent letters to 10 of the top 15 online advertising networks urging them to adopt and post policies that prohibit ads from online pharmacies unless they are certified by the National Association of the Boards of Pharmacy’s (NABP) Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) program.

“They are using online advertising, email spam and now social networks to market their dangerous and fake drugs to consumers, and we are calling on online ad sellers follow the best practices set by Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, AOL, and Ask and refuse to sell advertising to them,” said PSM Vice President Bryan A. Liang, MD, PhD, JD, in a statement.

According to NABP, 96% of online pharmacies are not safe for consumers; however, they continue to market to consumers online through organic search results, email spam, and social media. Although the Facebook advertising guidelines prohibit ads that contain, facilitate, promote, or reference “uncertified pharmaceutical products,” the policy does not specify who can sell “certified pharmaceutical products.”

PSM has been working for more than a decade to curb the counterfeit drug epidemic, and rogue online sellers are one of the largest obstacles, the organization stated. Recent news about Google’s possible settlement with the Department of Justice regarding their online advertising practices relating to online pharmacies helped to illuminate the issue, but Google is just one of many online ad networks. In fact, each of the top 15 online ad platforms (as defined by comScore’s April Ad Network Reach Ratings) reach at least 68% of all Americans monthly, according to a recent report.

NABP’s VIPPS certification requires an Internet pharmacy to comply with the licensing and survey requirements of its state and each state to which it dispenses pharmaceuticals. VIPPS-accredited pharmacies meet nationally endorsed standards of pharmacy practice and must demonstrate compliance with standards of privacy and authentication and security of prescriptions, adhere to quality assurance policy, and provide meaningful consultation between patients and pharmacists.
Of the top 15 online ad networks, 10 did not have publicly stated policies relating to rogue online pharmacies. PSM sent letters to each urging them to require VIPPS certification from any online pharmacy that wishes to advertise, and restrict those pharmacies to advertising only in the jurisdictions in which they are accredited. Those 10 online ad networks are:
  • shareThis
  • Specific Media
  • Turn Media Platform
  • ValueClick Networks
  • 24/7 Real Media
  • Facebook.com
  • AdBrite
  • Vibrant Media
  • Collective
  • Tribal Fusion
“Working with these ad networks to shore up their policies for online pharmacy advertising, we can begin to stem the tide of counterfeit drugs that are harming Americans,” said Dr. Liang. “We look forward to hearing from these companies that they are taking action to protect Americans.”

To read the letter, click here.

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