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FDA Says Consumers Continue to Buy Risky Drugs Online


A yearlong U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigation into drugs mailed to the United States from foreign countries suggests that consumers may be buying drugs online to avoid the need for a prescription from their physician. The FDA sampling of imported drugs also indicates that consumers continue to spend money unnecessarily on potentially risky drug products bought over the Internet.

The investigation found 88 percent of the 2,069 drug packages examined appeared to be prescription medicines available in the United States. Of the remaining products, some were dietary supplements, some were foreign products with labeling that was illegible or incomprehensible, and some were medications not available in the United States. More than half (53 percent) of the products sampled have FDA-approved generic versions, likely sold at lower costs, according to earlier studies that have shown generics in the United States to be generally cheaper than a comparable drug in Canada or Western Europe. In fact, approved generic versions of approximately half (47 percent) of the sampled products can be bought for $4 at several national chain pharmacies, a price often lower than the shipping costs for the same drugs purchased online.

The data lead us to believe that many people are buying drugs online not to save money but to bypass the need for a prescription from their doctor since these Web sites typically do not require the purchaser to have a prescription, said Randall Lutter, Ph.D., FDAs deputy commissioner for policy. In essence, they seem to be getting and using prescription drugs without a prescription, an intrinsically risky practice.

These data are based on surveys conducted from September 2006 to August 2007 in international mail facilities and courier facilities across the country. At each city, all parcels suspected by customs and border patrol of containing pharmaceuticals were stopped for a period of 24 hours. FDA then recorded data on the contents of these parcels, before handling them in accordance with its usual procedures.

In general, a Web site can appear legitimate, but in fact be a front for an illegal operation. FDA urges consumers to beware of unregulated Internet drug sellers, because many of their products might not contain the correct ingredients and could contain toxic substances. Several drugs found in this survey require special monitoring by physicians or other health care professionals for potential adverse events and to ensure their effectiveness. These include antibiotics, antidepressants, the blood thinner warfarin, and levothyroxine (a thyroid replacement hormone).


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