Buying Medicines Online: It's Convenient and Private, but Beware of 'Rogue Sites'
The scene is becoming increasingly common in the United States: Consumers are replacing a trip to the corner pharmacy with a click onto the Internet. This is where they find hundreds of websites selling prescription medicines and other health products.
Many of these are lawful enterprises that genuinely offer convenience, privacy, and the safeguards of traditional procedures for prescribing medicines. For the most part, consumers can use these services with the same confidence they have in their neighborhood pharmacist. Some of these sites are familiar large pharmacy chains. Others are local "mom and pop" pharmacies, set up to serve their customers electronically.
But consumers must be suspicious of people who are using the Internet as an outlet for products or practices that are illegal in the offline world. These rogue sites sell unapproved products, or—if they deal in approved ones—often sidestep established procedures meant to protect consumers. For example, some sites require customers to fill out only a questionnaire before ordering prescription medicines, bypassing any face-to-face interaction with a healthcare professional.
Skirting the system this way sets the stage for problems. This includes dangerous medicine interactions and harm from contaminated, counterfeit, or outdated medicines.
A brave, new world
For some people, buying prescription medicines online offers advantages not available from a local pharmacy including:
Internet medicine shopping also claims to save consumers money. In some cases, this is true.
Consumers seeking health products online can find dozens of sites that FDA officials say are legally questionable. A number of them specialize in providing medicines, such as sildenafil citrate for erectile dysfunction, the baldness therapy finasteride, or the weight-loss treatment orlistat. Others, based in foreign countries, promise to deliver prescription medicines at a much cheaper price than their cost in one's own country. These medicines may be different from those approved in the United States or may be past their expiration dates. Still other sites make false health claims or blatantly advertise that a customer can buy medicines with no prescription. Online medicine sites can now be located in nearly any state or country having phone lines.
Overseeing online sales
Whether new legislation will improve oversight of online pharmacies remains to be seen. State medical boards regulate medical practice, while state pharmacy boards oversee pharmacy practice. The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission make sure that medicine sellers make legal, scientifically proven claims for their products. Numerous other agencies, such as the U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Postal Service enforce laws regarding the shipment of medicine products.
The FDA regulates the safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing of pharmaceutical medicines, as well as a part of the prescribing process.
Regulating Internet sales of health products is still fairly new. Yet the FDA has successfully taken action in the past against illegal sites.
How online sales work
In general, legitimate online pharmacies operate this way:
Some online pharmacies send products from a central spot. Others allow users to pick the prescription up at a local pharmacy. Prescriptions usually are delivered quickly, often with no shipping charge. For an extra fee, many sites will deliver overnight.
What consumers can do
With hundreds of medicine-dispensing websites in business, how can consumers tell which sites are legitimate ones? This is especially hard when it's very easy to set up a site that is professional looking and promises deep discounts or a minimum of hassles.
The FDA offers these tips to consumers who buy health products online:
Don't buy from sites that offer to prescribe a prescription medicine for the first time without a physical exam, sell a prescription medicine without a prescription, or sell medicines not approved by FDA.
Be careful of sites that use impressive-sounding terminology to disguise a lack of good science. Also, watch out for those that claim the government, the medical profession, or research scientists have conspired to suppress a product.
If you suspect a site is illegal, you can report it to the FDA on its website.