THE MAGAZINE

What Ails Online Pharmacies

By Carlton Purvis

Online pharmacies are a multimillion dollar business, but it’s a consumer- beware world in which much of what is sold is not what it purports to be. Governments and others are trying to address the problem.

Almost anything can be purchased online. That can be great for consumers in terms of price and convenience, but when it comes to pharmaceuticals, the risk may not be worth the potential for savings. Many online pharmacies operate illegally and sell counterfeit drugs that, at best, lack the active ingredient the consumer seeks. At worst, they can lead to sickness or death from compromised chemicals or worsening of a condition that isn’t being treated. Some of the most counterfeited prescriptions are erectile dysfunction drugs, anti-malarials, cardiovascular drugs, and HIV medications.

The problem is sizeable. A University of California, San Diego study conducted in 2011 found that illegal online pharmacies generate $1 million to $2.5 million monthly.

Governmental organizations and companies are working to address the problem. One such effort was launched September 2011 by the European Alliance for Access to Safe Medicines (EAASM) to raise public awareness about online pharmacies and the risks associated with them. EAASM wanted a way to engage directly with the people propping up the illegal pharmaceutical industry—the customers. The organization also wanted to help consumers change their behavior and “get them back into the legitimate medical model,” according to Jim Thomson, EAASM chair.

EAASM took an unusual approach. Rather than simply discuss the risks, it wanted to illustrate them. EAASM created its own illegitimate online pharmacy: Medizin Direkt. They named the initiative Counterfeiting the Counterfeiters. Here’s a look at the nature of the problem and how EAASM and others are fighting back.

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