THE MAGAZINE

What Ails Online Pharmacies

By Carlton Purvis
Background

With the high cost of medications, it’s not hard to understand why people seek bargains. Consumers in the United States cite lower prices as one of the main reasons for buying drugs online, Thomson says. Online pharmacies usually offer deals, especially for customers who buy in bulk. In Western Europe, however, cost isn’t as much of an issue because of nationalized healthcare. People in Europe are trying to avoid getting a diagnosis or having to see a doctor about an embarrassing condition, Thomson says.

Germans have been shown to have a particularly high rate of purchasing prescription-only medicines (POMs) online. A 2010 study from Pfizer found that 38 percent of Germans admitted to purchasing POMs online without a prescription. EAASM estimates that more than 16 million German prescriptions may have been filled with counterfeit medication.

Risks

EAASM conducted research to understand the scope and nature of the problem before launching the project. It began in 2008 with a study.

For the study, it weeded out obvious scams and examined 100 seemingly legitimate online pharmacies. EAASM found that 96 percent of the sites were operating illegally, unlicensed by any board of pharmacies, and not bound to any legal or safety regulations. More than 98 percent of the pharmacies had no verifiable pharmacists on staff and only 15 percent actually existed; the rest were nothing more than Internet Web sites. To see the quality of medications consumers would get from these sites, EAASM ordered several POMs from each one. Chemical analysis revealed problems with 62 percent of the medicines, “including medicines used to treat serious conditions,” according to a report of the findings.

“We got rid of the really obvious bad guys, so it was quite surprising that 62 percent of what we bought was fake or substandard,” says Thomson. Of the 38 percent of medicines that were genuine, EAASM reports that 16 percent were imported illegally.

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