Buying Prescriptions Online (cont.)

As for the regulatory authorities, Albano says that the FDA made a lot of noise at the time the program was announced but took no real action to stop it. Since then, many city and state governments have implemented or announced similar plans. The FDA has continued to shy away from enforcing regulations in many cases.

Next: Safety Tips for Buying Drugs Online

Buyer Beware

But while buying cheaper drugs from reputable online pharmacists at home or abroad can save you plenty, obtaining drugs blindly from a site you've never heard of could also buy you major trouble. The FDA, Federal Trade Commission, and consumer watchdog groups warn that when you order from web sites you're not sure about, you could be getting counterfeit drugs that contain no active ingredients or even harmful substances.

Most consumers are smart enough to know that the "Rolex" watch offered by a street-corner peddler is sure to be a cheap knockoff. If you want the real thing, you go to a reputable jeweler down the street. But when the street is just one little block on the information superhighway, how can you tell whether you're dealing with a respectable storefront operation or a sidewalk hustler?

You only need to glance at the spam clogging your inbox to see that some charlatan somewhere -- whether it's in the Bahamas, Beijing, Africa, or Alabama -- is willing to take your money in exchange for drugs that promise to make your sex life better, grow hair on a billiard ball, double your lifespan, or let you eat deep-fried Twinkies while you watch the pounds melt away!

Some sites offer the chance to "buy drugs (FDA-approved prescription drugs) and other medications with NO prescription." Others promise that only a brief online or telephone consultation is needed. When Consumer Reports magazine senior editor Tod Marks went online to see what he could get without a valid prescription, he found this: "Without visiting or speaking to a doctor, Marks was able to buy seven different prescription drugs -- to help him lose weight, quit smoking, combat osteoporosis, and fight aging, depression, seasonal allergies, and bacterial infection. Except for the antihistamine, which might have helped his hay fever, Marks, a healthy 44-year-old nonsmoker, had no business taking those medications," the magazine reports.

An Ounce of Prevention

How can you tell whether a cyberpharmacy is legit? A bill currently before the U.S. Senate, called the Dorgan-Snowe Drug Importation Bill, would establish a system for ensuring that imported drugs are approved by the FDA and are made in FDA-inspected facilities. In addition, drugs could only be imported from countries with a drug regulation system comparable to that of the U.S. The bipartisan bill also calls on the FDA to establish a list of approved Canadian pharmacies on its web site and furnish a toll-free phone number for Americans to verify the legitimacy of a Canadian pharmacy. The FDA would also be required to inspect both Canadian pharmacies and U.S. importers of prescription drugs to ensure that they comply with the law.

At least three similar drug importation bills have been passed by the House of Representatives, but to date no drug importation bill to benefit consumers has made it into law.

In the meantime, consumer advocates in the U.S. and Canada recommend that people who are considering buying drugs from online pharmacies -- domestic or foreign -- follow the following steps:

  • Don't take any prescription drugs that have not been prescribed for you by a doctor or other qualified health care provider who has examined you in person.
  • Don't order drugs from web sites that don't list a street address, telephone number, or means of directly contacting a pharmacist.
  • Don't buy from sites that offer prescription drugs without a prescription, or that will issue prescriptions after you fill out an online questionnaire or telephone consultation.
  • Do check to make sure that the site participates in the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) seal program, run by the U.S.-based National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. NABP certifies pharmacies in the U.S. (including territories), eight Canadian provinces, Australia, and South Africa.

Published Sept. 15, 2004.

SOURCES: Michael Albano, Springfield, Mass. Barry Power, PharmD, Canadian Pharmacists Association, Ottawa, ON, Canada. U.S. Congressional Budget Office. FDA. U.S. Federal Trade Commission. Health Canada. Consumers Union. Consumer Reports, February 2001.

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