Buying prescription drugs over the Internet can be convenient and often money-saving. Even if your health insurance (including Medicare part D) covers medication, it may not pay for certain drugs, in which case Internet shopping may be tempting. But you should do some homework first, because the online drug marketplace is a bit like the Wild West.
Drugs sold online may be diluted, contaminated, stolen, or handled improperly. They may come from countries with no regulatory systems, or they may not carry proper instructions. It is a wide-open drug highway. In fact, some 97 percent of online pharmacies don’t meet U.S. pharmacy practice standards or laws, according to the FDA. Typically such pharmacies are located in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, or South and Central America—though many of them claim to be located in Canada.
Websites selling misbranded or outright unapproved drugs are a particular problem. For example, between May 31 and June 7, 2016 alone, the FDA asked more than 4,400 websites illegally selling potentially dangerous unapproveddrugs (including an herbicide being marketed as a weight-loss drug) to suspend their activities. They also sent warning letters to the operators of 53 websites selling misbranded or unapproved drugsto U.S. consumers.
Finding safe drugs online
The FDA advises buying drugs only from online pharmacies that are located and licensed in the U.S. Technically, buying drugs from abroad is illegal, but many people do so without consequences, especially from Canada, where Health Canada (similar to our FDA) ensures drug safety, and where drugs—often made in the U.S.—can cost half as much. But even Canadian pharmacies can escape regulation when exporting drugs.
If you want to buy prescription medicine online,whether from a U.S. source or elsewhere, follow these tips:
- Buy only from a website that requires aprescription and has a pharmacist who you can contact by phone for consultation.
- Comparison shop, but be wary if the pricesare too good to be true. It might indicate a substandard or counterfeit product. Shipping costs may cancel out the savings.
- Never buy from any source that contacts you through spam email, no matter how good a deal it may seem.
- You can use the website PharmacyChecker.com to check for certified pharmacies. It verifies that online pharmacies are licensed by the state in which they operate, and that they follow responsible policies including requiring a prescription, respecting the privacy of consumers’ information, and having a verified mailing address and phone number. The site lets you search by drug name and compare prices at approved pharmacies.
- The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), an independent regulatory foundation, verifies Internet pharmacies through its voluntary Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) program. The VIPPS seal indicates that a pharmacy is located in the U.S. and meets state licensing requirements, among other criteria. Some larger drugstore chains, including CVS and Walgreens, have the VIPPS seal of approval for their online pharmacies.
- If you are suspicious of the activity of an online pharmacy, visit the website of NABP and report it using this online form.
- To be on the safe side, don’t buy drugs from online pharmacies claiming to be Canadian. The FDA warns that this claim is ubiquitous among fraudulent websites run by companies that are operating out of a completely different country than Canada, as noted above.
- Use these FDA resources. Launched in 2012, BeSafeRx is a national FDA campaign that includes a website with advice (including videos) on how to safely navigate the online pharmacy market. You can also visit this FDA web page to learn about online pharmacies to which the agency has issued warning letters, as well as a link for reporting a complaint about an Internet pharmacy.
Keep in mind: There’s something to be said for going to a neighborhood pharmacist who knows you and your medical history, even if it costs a bit more. A pharmacist is a valuable professional resource who can answer questions about how to take the medication, help you avoid interactions and side effects, and guide you toward less expensive generics—personalized services you’re not likely to get when you shop online. All in all, a good payoff, especially if you are taking several drugs. Some pharmacies (both neighborhood pharmacies and chains) now also offer sit-down consultations to help you manage your drugs.
Also see Foreignceuticals: Our Drugs Go Global.