Drug Spam Finds Easy Target in US Patients

Americans are more likely than patients in other countries to treat serious illnesses with drugs purchased from rogue online pharmacies.

Americans are more likely than patients in other countries to treat serious illnesses with drugs purchased from rogue online pharmacies.

While Canadians and Europeans respond to drug spam for the typical "male enhancement" products, many Americans see the spurious ads as a source of affordable relief from severe health problems, according to new research by a team of computer scientists from the University of California, San Diego.

The study, "Show Me the Money: Characterizing Spam-Advertised Revenue," investigated the business operations of companies that use spam to hawk products online. In their pursuit of spam's inner workings, however, the researchers, led by Chris Kanich, PhD, of UCSD's Department of Computer Science and Engineering, uncovered a disturbing health trend.

Eva Pharmacy Screenshot, via the Partnership for Safe Medicines

"People are going to [online pharmacies] when they're either too embarrassed to talk to a doctor, or when it would be far too expensive to buy these drugs otherwise," Dr. Kanich told the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review. His findings are the first to offer an in-depth look at which drugs patients buy most often as a direct result of spam advertising.

The focus of the study was EvaPharmacy, one of the top 5 largest Web-based, spam-advertised pharmacies. Drug purchases were broadly categorized as either recreational ("lifestyle" drugs) or essential ("non-lifestyle" drugs). Lifestyle drugs included erectile dysfunction and human growth hormone pills; non-lifestyle drugs included medications for anxiety, asthma, high blood pressure, and cancer, among other serious ailments.

US patients bought drugs in the non-lifestyle category 33% of the time, whereas Canadians and Europeans bought these drugs just 8% of the time. Of all the non-lifestyle drug purchases, 85% were made by Americans. The report's authors attribute the discrepancy to differences in health care coverage in the various countries.

"Drugs easily justified to a physician may be fully covered under state health plans in Canada and Western Europe," the team wrote. "Conversely, a subset of uninsured or under-insured customers in the US may view spam-advertised, no-prescription-required pharmacies as a competitive market for meeting their medical needs."

Fighting spam at the pharmacy

Dr. Kanich and colleagues seek to win the war against spam by invalidating it as a viable selling tactic. Although their findings are a start, the latest research just scrapes the surface of why and how spam works. In the meantime, pharmacists can counteract the messages illegitimate drug peddlers are sending patients via email, in search engines, and on social networks.

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy offers counseling resources for educating patients to spot the signs of unlicensed, illegal, or otherwise unsafe online pharmacies. Pharmacists can also share this video from the Partnership for Safe Medicines, which depicts the possible dangers of buying medicines from rogue Web sites:

For more on online pharmacies, see:

  • Pulling the Plug on Rogue Pharmacies
  • Google Plagued by Rogue Pharmacy Ads

For other articles in this issue, see:

  • Rx Sharing Not Linked to Income
  • Closing the Gender Gap in Pharmacy Ownership