Online drug risks outweigh savings

  • By Michelle Singletary / Herald Columnist
  • Wednesday, August 11, 2004 9:00pm
  • Business

If you need a prescription filled, be careful before ordering from an online pharmacy.

We all know the price of prescription drugs is enough to give buyers a headache, but don’t be so eager to get a price break that you end up with counterfeit drugs, advises the National Consumers League.

According to a recent league survey, most consumers purchasing prescription drugs over the Internet don’t know how to tell whether the drugs they get are legitimate. The online survey of 1,013 adults 18 and older, conducted by Opinion Research Corp. in May, found that more than half of those surveyed believe there is no way to tell if a prescription drug sold online is real or counterfeit.

“Getting fooled by counterfeit drugs could mean wasting your money on ineffective medicine, but it could also mean taking grave health risks with drugs that aren’t what they pretend to be,” Linda Golodner, National Consumers League president, said in a statement.

In a recent report by the General Accounting Office, the federal agency found many instances where Internet pharmacies – most of which operate in foreign countries – exhibited shaky business practices, including not requiring people to have a prescription to make a purchase.

In its test of online prescription ordering, the GAO obtained 68 samples of 11 different drugs, each from a different pharmacy Web site. The GAO found fewer problems among pharmacies it contacted in Canada and the United States than in other parts of the world. Still, the GAO found enough to make me quiver.

For example, given the rampant number of rogue pharmacies on the Internet, the GAO got stiffed. The agency paid for but never received six drug orders totaling more than $700. In addition, some drugs were counterfeit and others had return addresses on the packaging that, when traced, turned out to be private residences.

It turned out that 14 of the 68 pharmacy Web sites tested were already under investigation by regulatory agencies for selling counterfeit drugs or providing prescription drugs where no valid doctor-patient relationship existed. In some cases, foreign Internet pharmacies appeared to offer U.S. versions of brand-name drugs on their Web sites, but attempted to substitute an alternative drug during the ordering process.

“Certain practices of Internet pharmacies may render it difficult for consumers to know exactly what they are buying,” the GAO report concluded.

So how can you tell if you’re dealing with a legitimate Web pharmacy? Here are signs of a suspicious online pharmacy, according to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, a professional association that represents boards of pharmacy in all 50 states and the District of Columbia:

* Suspect e-pharmacies will dispense prescription medications without requiring you to mail in a prescription, or they may not contact your doctor to obtain a valid verbal prescription. Some send you medication based solely on an online questionnaire without your having a pre-existing relationship with a doctor and the benefit of an in-person physical examination.

* If the online pharmacy doesn’t have a toll-free phone number as well as a street address posted on its site, keep clicking. Be very suspicious of a pharmacy site that merely has an e-mail feature. If the only means of communication between you and the pharmacy is by e-mail, your scam bells should be ringing. Oh, and by the way, the pharmacy association says illegal pharmacy sites frequently sell their customer lists to other illegitimate online businesses. So if you buy from a sham site, you could be marking yourself as a scam target.

* If a site does not advertise the availability of pharmacists for medication consultation, it should be avoided. Legitimate sites allow consumers to contact pharmacists if they have questions about their medications.

* Be leery of online pharmacies that sell limited numbers of medications. Although pharmacies may not sell every medication available in the United States, those that specialize only in medications that treat sexual dysfunction or assist in weight loss, for example, may not be operating legitimately.

Pfizer, the maker of Viagra, announced recently that it was going to aggressively pursue legal action against dozens of illegitimate online pharmacies that sell counterfeit Viagra.

These illegal Web sites often claim that you can buy Viagra from them, then they send consumers a counterfeit drug. Some sites promote a generic brand of Viagra. Pfizer says that’s not possible, since there is no FDA-approved generic version of its drug.

There is one way to help identify a legitimate online pharmacy. Contact the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy at www.nabp.net/vipps/intro.asp. On the site, you will find the association’s Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites program, which is a free service that allows consumers to check the legitimacy of an online pharmacy. Always look for the seal, and then verify that it’s legit with the pharmacy association.

As demand and cost for prescription drugs rise, many consumers will be turning to the Internet to make their pharmaceutical purchases. Ordering your medication online can be safe and convenient.

But searching for drugs at a discount without first checking out the online pharmacy could damage not just your finances, but your health.

Washington Post Writers Group

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