What to Avoid When Buying Drugs Online (cont.)

A recent government investigation hints at what you may get by ordering drugs online.

During the first half of 2004, U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigators ordered 68 samples of 11 different drugs from online pharmacies located in the U.S., Canada, and other countries. The drugs they bought included popular drugs like Lipitor, Viagra, Zoloft, and Celebrex, as well as two addictive narcotics, OxyContin and Vicodin. (All the sites claiming to sell brand-name Vicodin actually shipped the drug's generic equivalent, hydrocodone.)

The GAO study found problems with many of the drugs they ordered, including four counterfeit samples.

Two orders from U.S.-based online pharmacies came with no instructions for use; two came with no warning information, and one was not shipped properly. Four of the Canadian samples came with no warning information, and 16 of the samples were Canadian versions not approved for sale in the U.S. market.

The worst offenses were found with the drugs ordered from online pharmacies operating out of Argentina, Costa Rica, Fiji, India, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, Spain, Thailand, and Turkey.

When the GAO investigators ordered Accutane from outside the U.S. and Canada, they received "Roaccutan," a foreign version of the drug with Spanish-language packaging. The FDA warns consumers never to buy Accutane online because its use must be closely monitored, and only doctors on a special registry may prescribe it.

An order of Crixivan, an HIV/AIDS drug, came packaged in an aluminum can inside a box of "Gold Dye & Stain Remover Wax." Investigators were able to get one sample of OxyContin from a foreign site, and it was determined to be counterfeit. The pills came in a plastic baggie stuffed inside a CD case that was wrapped in packing tape.

What's more, some of the drug samples came from places that stretch our definition of "pharmacy." Two return addresses were traced to private homes in Lahore, Pakistan. One return address was a business in Cozumel, Mexico, but that business claimed to have no connection to an online pharmacy. Another shipment apparently came from a shopping mall in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but investigators weren't able to find out which store in the mall had sent it.

Finally, six orders that GAO investigators placed and paid for never arrived.

Safe Online Shopping

There are benefits to filling your prescriptions online. For people who are house-bound and those who live out in the far reaches of rural America, Internet pharmacies provide an invaluable service.

Many of us don't know the actual price of our prescriptions because we pay a flat co-pay to our insurance companies. Shopping online, however, allows those without prescription drug benefits to see, for example, that Walgreens.com sells a 30-day supply of 10 mg Lipitor for $77.99, and Drugstore.com has it for $64.99.

The FDA points consumers to the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) program, run by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.

Web sites that carry the VIPPS seal are assured to be legitimate pharmacies located in the U.S. Some are online services offered by chain drug stores, but those that only fill prescriptions online abide by the same regulations that traditional U.S. drug stores follow.

"That seal needs to be well understood," says the American Pharmacists Association's Kristina Lunner.

At present only 14 online pharmacies are authorized to carry it. You can check to see if an online pharmacy is part of the VIPPS program at the VIPPS web site.

In general, the FDA offers the following advice to online shoppers:

  • Do not buy from sites that don't require a valid prescription.
  • Be certain that you're comfortable with the site's privacy policy, and don't submit any personal information unless you are.
  • Make sure the site has a licensed pharmacist you can contact to ask questions.
  • Don't buy from foreign online pharmacies.
  • Ask your doctor before you use any medicines for the first time.

Published Nov. 17, 2004.

SOURCES: Kristina Lunner, director of federal government affairs, American Pharmacists Association. Gayle Osterberg, director of communications, Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Caroline Loew, PhD, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Federation of State Medical Boards of the United States, Inc., Special Committee on Professional Conduct and Ethics, April 2000. American Medical Association, Report of the Board of Trustees, Internet Prescribing, 1999. United States General Accounting Office, Report to the Chairman, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, "Internet Pharmacies: Some Pose Safety Risks for Consumers," June 2004. Prepared Statement of the Federal Trade Commission on "The Internet Sale of Prescription Drugs From Domestic Websites" Before Committee on Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, March 2003. 108th Congress 2nd Session Bill S. 2464, "Ryan Haight Act." FDA.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005 9:01:37 AM