Hold the Fries, Avoid Dessert, and Skip the Counterfeit Xenical

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.

But beware: Most of these websites are glossed-up fakes selling dangerous counterfeits. The World Health Organization estimates that around 10 percent of the global drug supply is counterfeit.

Fraud expertMarkMonitor recently found that of the 3,160 online pharmacies it examined, just four 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.

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported on a scam where customers made online purchases of what they thought was Xenical, a popular anti-obesity drug.What they actually received, however, were pills made of talc and starch.

Considering the risks of online meds, those consumers actually lucked out. In December 2006, a Canadian woman died from taking counterfeit anti-anxiety drugs and sedatives containing extremely high levels of arsenic, aluminum, lead, and other heavy metals. The bogus online pharmacy she bought them from claimed to be headquartered in Canada, but was actually based in Eastern Europe and supplied by manufacturers in Southeast Asia.

Online scam artists employ sophisticated tactics to dupe consumers and evade law enforcement.

Some change their website and company name every few weeks. Most use packaging that’s indistinguishable from the real thing.

Despite the threat posed by counterfeits, some lawmakers want to legalize prescription drug importation. Indeed, while campaigning for the White House, Barack Obama promised that he’d allow distributers in Canada, Britain, and other industrialized countries to sell prescription meds to America, if elected.

Of course, proponents of importation promise that the FDA will ensure the safety of foreign drugs.

But that’s, well, just that — a promise. And it ignores the hard 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 the FDA inspects less than 3 percent of the 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.

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.Websites that can’t be trusted. And customers that can’t discern what’s genuine from what’s dangerous.

Pledging to live a healthier life is a great way to start the New Year. Drugs purchased online, however, shouldn’t be a part of that effort.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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