Protecting Our Drug Supply: Internet Pharmacies, Fake Drugs and the Debate Over Imported Medicine

By Dr. Bryan Liang VP of the Partnership for Safe Medicines What you should know about the public health threat posed by phony online pharmacies and the possible new risks of opening the US drug supply to foreign sources.

Posted on | By Dr. Bryan Liang

High school student Ryan Haight’s tragic death in 2001 awakened the nation to the dangers of rogue online pharmacies dispensing fake medicine, including counterfeit and diverted forms that were dispensed without any physician oversight. Congress responded by passing the aptly named  Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act in 2008, a law that was intended to stop illicit practices by online pharmacies in the US.

While Ryan’s story brought attention to the very serious public health threat posed by phony online pharmacies, many Americans do not realize that the problem is even worse today. Nor are they aware of the new risks we would face if Washington opens our drug supply to foreign sources.

Online Pharmacy Counterfeit Risks

Nearly three years after the Haight Act, a new study conducted by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacies (NABP) has found that nearly 80% of purported online pharmacies still do not require a valid prescription for any medicine. The report also finds that:

  • 96% don’t meet the necessary certification established by the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites.
  • More than 3,000 pharmacies dispense medicines in the US that are not FDA-approved.
  • Most online pharmacies fail to identify a physical address.
  • Of those who do, roughly two-thirds are located outside the US.

These illegal online drug sellers have now infiltrated the social media space as well. As my work has noted, they have adapted quickly to any opportunity to make illicit sales, and there is little if any regulatory means to address related patient safety risks.

Threats Outside the US

Illicit online pharmacies offer a worldwide gateway for criminals to market and sell counterfeit or tainted products under the guise of legitimacy. Even when the arm of US law can reach them, which is increasingly uncommon as these online drug pushers are located outside the US, criminals still have every incentive to make and sell counterfeit prescription medicine, as they consider it “low risk.” First, it’s rare that they get caught. Second, the penalties in virtually every area of the world for trafficking licit drugs are far less than those associated with the distribution of illicit drugs – often resulting in no more than a fine.

Article written by Dr. Bryan Liang
VP of the Partnership for Safe Medicines