Illegal online pharmacies exploit drug shortages

Illegal online pharmacies exploit drug shortages

12/14/2022

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Illegal online pharmacies are exploiting the surge of consumers turning to the internet to buy medicine that may be in short supply at their local pharmacies. As a result, consumers could be putting their lives at risk, according to experts who spoke with FOX Business.  

In recent years, U.S. consumers have increasingly turned to the internet to seek health care and buy prescription drugs because of perceived cost savings and convenience, especially during the pandemic when people were confined to their homes. That is according to Libby Baney, a Washington D.C.-based partner at Faegre Drinker and senior adviser of the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies. 

Problems accessing drugs in brick-and-mortar stores or even from a pharmacist, whether it's because of a product shortage or legislation that restricts certain medications, is further driving people online, according to Dr. John Hertig, president of the Board of the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies and chair of Pharmacy Practice at Butler University's College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. 

The nationwide shortage of basic antibiotics and critical medications that treat chronic conditions and bacterial infections has become the latest issue in the medical world. 

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But what most Americans don't know is that "95% of online drug sellers are operating illegally, selling sometimes counterfeit, misbranded, [or] substandard drugs outside the regulated supply chain," Baney told FOX Business. 

According to a recent report from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), it has been consistently estimated that there have been between 30,000 and 40,000 active illegal online pharmacies at any given time over the past 10 years. 

Pills sitting on a keyboard.  (Wodicka/ullstein bild via Getty Images / Getty Images)

Dr. Al Carter, executive director of NABP, told FOX Business that his team finds around 200 illegal pharmacies operating online every week.  

Baney argued that it shouldn't be on the consumer "to find the needle in the 95% haystack."

However, if people need a drug and can't get it through traditional means, they're going to look for alternative resources. In this case, that means the internet, she added. 

"The human tendency isn't saying, 'Oh, I'm just not going to take it'. It's ‘How else can I take it?' Or 'How else can I get it?'" Hertig said in agreement. 

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Criminals are abusing the situation by creating targeted advertisements for the drugs in short supply. 

As these drugs receive national media attention, that's when you start seeing more illegal online pharmacies promoting them, with some promising that they can get you drugs such as amoxicillin or Adderall within one day, Carter said. 

On-line pharmaceutical companies fill prescriptions worldwide. (Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images)

However, the difference between getting safe and regulated medicine and unregulated medicine, "can cost you your life or your health," Baney said. "You just don't know where you're going to get to by outside the regulated supply chain."

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently reported that six of the 10 fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills analyzed by its lab in 2022 contained a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl. In 2021, four out of 10 fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills were found to contain a potentially lethal dose, the DEA reported. 

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"They're not selling from a licensed pharmacy. They're not selling FDA approved medicines. They're willing to break the law. In that case, you don't know what's in those products," Baney said. 

She is pleading for consumers to go to safe.pharmacy and legitiscript.com to verify if an online pharmacy is legal. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told FOX Business that the agency continuously works to increase consumer awareness about purchasing medicine online.

Frank Huntley has been trying to raise awareness of opiate addiction with his sculpture “Pill Man.” (Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images / Getty Images)

"While cost and convenience are key factors for many consumers when purchasing medicine from online pharmacies, consumers and health care professionals need to be aware of potential safety and health risks," the FDA said. 

The agency urges consumers to reach out to a pharmacy before ordering anything and to look out for signs that an online pharmacy may be unsafe, such as not requiring a doctor's prescription or if it's not licensed in the United States and by your state board of pharmacy. 

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The FDA said consumers should also be wary of any online pharmacy if it does not have a licensed pharmacist on staff to answer questions. Other warning signs are if it offers deep discounts or prices that seem too good to be true, the FDA continued. 

Gastroenterologist and obesity medicine specialist Dr. Christopher McGowan told FOX Business that patients should be wary if they receive medication that looks different from what they were previously taking; if it arrives in different packaging; and if it does not have a precise expiration date or is past its expiration date. 

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"Taking a medication of unknown origin or content can pose a risk to your health, including allergic reactions, medication reactions, or even the risk that the drug contains no active medical ingredients at all," McGowan said. "There is simply no way to know what you are getting. " 

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