The US Government Accountability Office Releases Condemning Report on Fake Internet Pharmacies

The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just released a new report on the growing threat of fake Internet pharmacies in the United States. Its findings underscore the difficulty of enforcing US laws on foreign-based Internet pharmacies, and the imperative need for public outreach to educate consumers about the dangers of counterfeit drugs.

Internet pharmacies that skirt U.S. laws and pose a serious danger to consumers are a growing concern, says the Government Accountability Office in their new July 2013 report on internet pharmacies (Download GAO Internet Pharmacies 2013). To compile their report, the GAO interviewed officials from Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Department of Justice, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other federal agencies, reviewed federal laws and regulations, and examined agency data and documents. They also conducted interviews with officials from five state boards of pharmacy to compare their differing approaches to regulating Internet pharmacies, as well as private sector stakeholders such as the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), drug manufacturers, and companies that provide services to Internet businesses, including payment processors. The goal of the report, according to the GAO was to illustrate “(1) how rogue sites violate federal and state laws, (2) challenges federal agencies face in investigating and prosecuting operators, (3) efforts to combat rogue Internet pharmacies, and (4) efforts to educate consumers about the risks of purchasing prescription drugs online.”

The GAO report cites the dangers posed to consumers by so-called fake Internet pharmacies, citing illness and death as possible outcomes. They also point out that fake online pharmacies often recruit “doctors and pharmacies based and licensed in the United States to fulfill online prescription drug orders in exchange for payment.” The report points out that drug counterfeiters target doctors and pharmacies that are in financial difficulties, tempting them to break the law for financial gain.

The GAO cites a recent trend among fake online pharmacies posing as legitimate online pharmacy sites, using copyrighted company logos, or logos for certifying organizations such as VIPPS, or Legitscript. There is also a worrying trend by fake online pharmacy operators to exploit the American consumer’s trust of the Canadian healthcare system. Says the GAO:

“…some state and local governments implemented programs that provided residents or employees and retirees with access to prescription drugs from Canadian Internet pharmacies. Despite FDA warnings to consumers that the agency could not ensure the safety of drugs not approved for sale in the United States that are purchased from other countries, the prevalence of such programs may have contributed to a perception among U.S. consumers that they can readily save money and obtain safe prescription drugs by purchasing them from Canada. Many rogue Internet pharmacies seek to take advantage of this perception by purporting to be located in Canada, or sell drugs manufactured or approved for sale in Canada, when they are actually located elsewhere or selling drugs sourced from other countries.”

In a related news story, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, reporting for CNN, spoke to several drug safety professionals for his story on the growing problem of counterfeit drugs in the United States. Carmen Catizone of the NABP told Dr. Gupta, “The drugs that they are shipping to consumers, that consumers believe are coming from Canada and have been approved by Health Canada, are really drugs that are coming from places that you would never believe and never suspect.”

Gupta also spoke with FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg, who thanked Gupta for reporting on this issue and expressed concern that “Consumers need to know that, sadly, the majority of websites that they’re going to encounter when they search the web looking for an online pharmacy are most likely rogue. They’re not selling FDA-approved product and they are operating illegally; and potentially purchasing from these sites would put people at risk.”

You can learn more about how to protect yourself while shopping for prescription medication online, by reading PSM’s “Save Money Safely from Online Pharmacies.

By S. Imber