We’ve all heard the saying, “ If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is.” That certainly applies to the purchase of pharmaceuticals from many on-line pharmacies. Although generic drugs are good economic choices and are acceptable substitutions for brand name drugs, many expensive drugs have no generic equivalents and no inexpensive alternatives.
But if you’re to believe the promotional advertising from many on-line pharmacy sites, you might think this wasn’t the case. At least several times a day, my computer’s spam filter captures ads for cheap, generic versions of popular, brand-name-only drugs. Since I have a background in pharmaceuticals, I realize these promotions are scams.
However, I often wonder how many people believe those ads and, worse yet, how many fall victim to the pharmaceutical scams. It seems that the FDA shares this concern since in the last month alone, the FDA shut down 1,677 on-line pharmacies.
The reasons for these closures included selling counterfeit drugs or for selling sub-standard medications without appropriate safeguards. In all, 58 people were arrested and over $41 million worth of illegal—mainly counterfeit—medications were seized, and the sting involved the cooperation of more than 100 countries, according to Interpol.
So what constitutes a counterfeit drug? In years past, counterfeit drugs often contained no actual drug. They were much like the sugar pills we call placebos, the kind that look like the real thing but have no active ingredients.
These days, however, counterfeit drugs may actually contain some active drug, mainly to pass minimal qualitative testing. Counterfeit drugs may also contain toxic ingredients that may seem similar to, but does not work like, the original active drug. In fact, some of these drugs may actually be lethal.
Some of the more commonly advertised counterfeit drug scams involve Viagra, Levitra, Celebrex, and a few of the more popular cardiovascular medications that are not yet available as less expensive generic alternatives.
The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy recently performed an analysis of more than 10,000 pharmaceutical websites and found that 97% did not fully comply with state and federal regulations, 88% did not require a valid prescription and almost 50% sold medications that lacked FDA approval.
An interesting revelation was that most of these sites were based overseas, even though most presented themselves as Canadian pharmacies. The obvious reason is that U.S. customers seek more affordable medications from our trusted neighbors to the North. In truth, most of the “Canadian” on-line pharmacy retailers were actually located in China, India and Pakistan.
The telltale signs of pharmacy scams distributing counterfeit drugs include the site not requesting a valid prescription for a drug product that normally requires one and not having a licensed pharmacist available for consultation.
In spite of these latest findings, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg stated, “We still do have the safest drug supply in the world.” Studies indicate that there is less than a 1% chance of receiving a counterfeit drug when purchasing from a legitimate U.S. pharmaceutical retailer. That means, in effect, over 99% of the drugs distributed in the United States are considered safe and within accepted potency standards.
If you wish to shop for pharmaceuticals on-line, my advice is to use only retailers that can be verified to be located in the United States and which are licensed in the state where the website is registered. In that way, you can be assured that the state’s Board of Pharmacy provides oversight of the pharmacy’s distribution policies and practices.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!