Google planning to pay as much as $500mm to settle charges of advertising illegal online pharmacies

Google Paid advertising only 1/4th of the problem; rogue pharmacies still operate in email, social media, and organic search results

The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and many other news outlets are reporting that the US Attorney's office of Rhode Island has developed an investigation into pharmaceutical advertising practices by Google that involve rogue online pharmacies advertising on the search giant.  None of the articles mention the fact that illegal online pharmacies still show up in the organic search results. 

"For years we have decried the ease with which rogue pharmacies preyed on consumers through search advertising," said Dr. Bryan Liang, Vice President of the Partnership for Safe Medicines.  “These rogue pharmacies have spent years developing their spam email campaigns, organic search rank, and most recently, their social media presences.  Even after this settlement, they still pose a grave health threat to consumers."

A recent study from NABP (National Association of the Boards of Pharmacy) found that 96% of the online pharmacies they screened online were not safe for consumers, demonstrating that the danger to consumers is still very pervasive.

Use of search advertising from Google, Yahoo!, and MSN has been a convenient way for rogue pharmacies all over the world to reach American consumers with their often deadly products.  The problem came to light in 2001 when teenager Ryan Haight bought prescription drugs over the Internet without a prescription and subsequently died from an overdose.  In 2004, all major online search engines adopted a third party verification service to screen out illegal pharmacies.

However subsequent research into online pharmacies by Dr. Liang and Tim Mackey identified purported verification services utilized by search engines were not filtering out illegal sellers. Further, independent entities Knujon and LegitScript later confirmed that the screening service was not keeping illegal pharmacies out, and that 80-90% of the ads being placed were from online pharmacies that violate state laws

In 2010 Google dropped their existing verification service and adopted the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy as a certifier of pharmacy advertisers for American consumers.  The problem didn’t end there, and rogue pharmacies continued to try and use Google’s service.  Eventually Google filed suit against them for violating AdWords terms of service.

However rogue pharmacy operators have recently begun moving into social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

“We’ve reported how these criminals adapt quickly to unregulated marketing opportunities. Hopefully it won’t take us ten more years to address this problem in organic search results, email, and social media”, said PSM’s Bryan Liang.  “The human toll of that is unacceptable.”

Image of Google sign by brionv via flickr



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