October 10, 2012 at 1:46 pm , by Amelia Harnish
In a survey of Internet users, one in four adults said they’ve bought drugs online, yet close to 30 percent said they had no idea how to identify a fake pharmacy from a real one. Those are scary stats because only 3 percent of online pharmacies comply with U.S. laws, according to a study by the National Boards of Pharmacy.
Margaret Hamburg, M.D., commissioner of the FDA, wants to make people more aware of this problem. Health director Julie Bain and I (right, with Dr. Hamburg in the middle) had a chance to sit down with her in New York last week to discuss it.
LHJ: We didn’t realize so many people shop online for drugs. What are the main reasons for doing it? Is it really as easy as putting something in your shopping cart and pressing enter?
MH: People do it for both convenience and cost. For some, it may be that their insurance company suggests they buy through the internet, and the insurance company recommends a certain site. That’s a safe way to go. But the danger is that when people get used to ordering online, they may start shopping around for cheaper prices on other sites. In these difficult economic times, it’s understandable that people want to look for the best price. But when it comes to medication, if it’s really cheap, then it probably isn’t the real thing.
And if it is as easy as just putting it in your cart, that is a major warning signal. You could never go to your brick and mortar pharmacy and get a prescription drug without a written prescription. So it’s a red flag online.
LHJ: What should women look out for if they do buy drugs online?
MH: There is real reason for concern that the product may be counterfeit or substandard, meaning it may not have the appropriate amount of the active pharmaceutical ingredients. It might have too little, too much, or it might have other ingredients or additives. Sometimes it can even be toxic, and your heath is too important to take a risk like that.
Safe and licensed online pharmacies exist, but your antenna has to go up every time. There are four key points to look for:
- Does the site require a prescription? (Your doctor’s office may need to send it electronically to the site, or sometimes you can scan a paper prescription.)
- Does it have a pharmacist available to answer your questions?
- Does it list a U.S. address and telephone number?
- Is it licensed?
If the answer is no to any of these questions (especially number 1), it may not be a reputable site. How do you determine if it’s licensed? On the BeSafeRx FDA site, click on your state, then scroll down to where you can enter the name of the pharmacy.