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Internet drug purchases could be harmful to your health

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
Caveat emptor! when ordering online

If you order prescription medications online, you may be purchasing an inferior ore even harmful product. Caveat emptor! (Latin for “let the buyer beware”). Most prescription drugs are expensive and many seniors who need them have limited funds for their purchase, even if they have a Medicare Part D prescription plan. Thus, some are lured into purchasing the drug from websites that often offer considerable savings. These sites range from completely legitimate ones such as drugstore.com to bogus ones that sell drugs that look exactly like the name brand but may contain harmful or ineffective ingredients. For example a website that advertises as a “Canadian pharmacy” may be located anywhere on the globe.

To get an update on the magnitude of the problem and how to order safely from the Internet, I consulted with Scott Williams, of Men’s Health Network (a national non-profit advocacy organization) and Matthew Bassiur, the Pfizer pharmaceutical company’s vice president of global security and a former federal prosecutor and intellectual property liaison to industry for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section. They informed me of the scope of the problem and also provided steps that the consumer could take to prevent getting a bogus product from a website. Pfizer manufactures the popular erectile dysfunction drug Viagra. This medication costs about $10 a tablet and is not covered by many drug plans, including Medicare Part D. Thus, manufacturers of bogus products can turn a huge product by selling bogus products at a reduced rate. For example, Viagra at $5 a pill would be attractive to many consumers.

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Bassiur told me that an astounding 80% of Internet Viagra is counterfeit. He cited some alarming facts about the counterfeit drug industry. He noted that in 2012, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security seized nearly $83 million worth of counterfeit and pirated drugs and personal care items. Only about 3% of more than 10,000 Internet outlets selling prescription drugs appear to be legitimate based on a review by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). The review found that some of these sites are not U.S. state-licensed pharmacies, and some of the medicines sold are not FDA-approved. Drugs treating a range of conditions, from cancer to anxiety to lifestyle issues, have been subject to counterfeiting. Some contain dangerous substances such as rat poison, wallboard, sheetrock, or road paint, and others may not include the correct dosage of medicine. In addition, they may be manufactured in substandard, even filthy facilities. The Web site may claim to be a “Canadian pharmacy.” However, location can actually be anywhere on the globe.

Many pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer, are working closely with the FDA and other regulatory agencies to help stem the tide of counterfeit drugs. Inasmuch as 80% of the counterfeit drugs look identical to the genuine product, the consumer must use other resources as well as telltale signs of a counterfeit product. The ability to buy the drug without a prescription and is a red flag indicating a counterfeit product. Thus, if a website does not require a prescription, log off the site.

The following simple steps will insure that you are getting a genuine medication from the Internet:

  1. When ordering online, first determine whether a prescription is required for a prescription medication. That will eliminate many of the websites.
  2. Next, look for an authentication from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP).
  3. Another safe option is to order your medication directly from the pharmaceutical manufacturer.
  4. As with in-store purchasing, shop around; prices may vary significantly.

See also:
Strategies for getting the most out of your Medicare Part D
Strategies to cut prescription costs for Medicare recipients