Fake Pharmacies Using Facebook as New Source of Customers
Researchers Bryan Liang and Timothy Mackey from the California Western School of Law and the University of California, San Diego, found that 90% of the top-selling medications are advertised by illegal online pharmacies promoting their sales without a prescription on social media websites.
Using the 10 highest grossing drugs of 2009, they found that 90% of these drugs had a non-corporate social media marketing presence by illegal online drug sellers, fake pharmacies marketing the sale of prescription drugs without a prescription and that are not verified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) program.
When they expanded their research to include the top 20 globally marketed medicines 80% of the top 20 products were marketed either by advertising or linking to illegal online drug sellers using social media with pictures and direct links to illicit sellers.
Of those social media sources, Facebook alone accounted for 60% for the top 10 drugs and 50% for the top 20.
Say the authors, “Adding even more public health risks and worries is the discovery that rogue online pharmacies are already entrenched in [social media]. The presence of illegal online pharmacies using interactive social media to sell illicit products is of great worry. First, from a legal point of view, this…presence represents another way it can undermine legal proscriptions (eg, prohibition of medication sales without a prescription, license, or oversight). But more important, avoidance of such legal proscriptions goes deeper as a safety risk, as patients may purchase drugs not approved or that are the subject of safety concerns.”
The authors further remind that fake online pharmacies have used internet search tools successful in the past, using online advertisements in search engines and search engine shopping pages, only to be thwarted by the development of recently enacted policy.
“Indeed, illegal online pharmacies have succeeded in selling tainted or fake drugs globally. They have used search engine-sponsored links to sell illegally and circumvent search engine mandates for legitimacy verification. But these illicit sellers are highly nimble; after investigations by us and others showing lack of search engine oversight and continued illicit sales, Google, followed by Yahoo and Bing/Microsoft, adopted recommendations to use only VIPPS accreditation. However, after this change, although eliminating sponsored link presence, illicit online pharmacies deftly moved to be listed in search engine shopping pages.
“However, it now appears that illicit online drug sellers have infiltrated [social media], including Facebook with its hundreds of millions of users worldwide. Such illicit presence and online purchasing of drugs are rife with patient risks. Counterfeit, diverted, and unregulated drugs are sold by these illegal vendors causing patient harm. With drug supply globalization, risks associated with unregulated, non-VIPPS sellers are legion, with a host of public health and regulatory agencies warning about online drug sellers.”
Liang and Mackey recommend the development of regulation as well as self-regulation by social media companies to control pharmaceutical advertising over social media sites.
“Illicit online pharmacy presence in the most popular social media forms poses a serious public health risk to both individuals searching for health-related information and users increasingly dependent on social networks for information. Social media service providers must recognize the serious implications of not actively policing this illicit content.”
Say authors Liang and Mackey, “The new consumer is one that is global and connected online... Public health policy must take into account this new consumer and the rapidly developing digital environment, and act to ensure that legal proscriptions against … illegal online pharmacies are followed and patient safety is protected on a global scale.”
Want to get a summary of global counterfeit drug news emailed to you every week? Sign up for our email list!