Millions of Americans will look to weight-loss drugs to help them keep their New Year’s resolution to slim down. And if they can’t get a prescription from a doctor, many will go online to purchase the pills from foreign distributors.
But beware: Most of these Web sites are glossed-up fakes selling dangerous counterfeits.
The World Health Organization estimates that around 10 percent of the global drug supply is counterfeit. When fraud expert MarkMonitor recently examined 3,160 online pharmacies, it found just four that were accredited by the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites, the industry standard for quality control.
So if you illegally purchase prescription meds online, you’re playing Russian roulette with your health.
The FDA recently reported on a scam where customers made online purchases of what they thought was Xenical, a popular anti-obesity drug. What they received, however, were pills made of talc and starch.
Considering the risks of online meds, they lucked out. In December 2006, a Canadian woman died from taking counterfeit anti-anxiety drugs and sedatives. The bogus e-pharmacy she bought them from claimed to be Canadian, but was based in Eastern Europe.
Online scams are employing increasingly sophisticated tactics to dupe consumers and evade law enforcement. Some change their Web site and company name every few weeks. And most use packaging that’s indistinguishable from the real thing.
Despite the escalating threat posed by counterfeits, some federal lawmakers want to legalize prescription drug importation. Legislation introduced by Sens. Byron Dorgan and Olympia Snowe would allow manufacturers in Canada, Britain and other industrialized countries to sell prescription meds to American pharmacists and wholesalers.
Of course, Dorgan and Snowe promise that the FDA will ensure the safety of all drugs from foreign sources. But that’s, well, just that — a promise.
And it ignores the reality that the FDA simply isn’t equipped to protect consumers from every Web-based snake-oil salesman.
The FDA can’t even handle its current caseload. A 2004 study found that it inspects less than 3 percent of suspected illicit drug packages that pass through the JFK International Airport mail facility.
What’s more, identifying and prosecuting perpetrators in the developing world, where many of these phony pharmacies operate, is next to impossible, especially since the FDA has yet to develop a reliable track-and-trace system of electronic purchases.
Even if the letter of the law requires suppliers to be from trustworthy countries, fraudulent sites are incredibly adept at fooling people about where they’re based. A 2005 FDA investigation at airports in New York, Miami and Los Angeles found that over 40 percent of the drugs imported from four selected countries to American buyers falsely claimed to be from “Canadian pharmacies.”
So here’s the reality we’ll be stuck with if prescription drug importation is legalized: Frauds that can’t be traced. Scam artists that can’t be caught. Web sites that can’t be trusted. And customers who can’t discern what’s genuine from what’s genuinely dangerous.
Can you imagine a worse way to start the New Year?