DOW JONES NEWSWIRES
NEW YORK — Many of the Web sites that purport to sell cheap drugs from Canada to U.S. consumers may be fraudulent, according to a study for the Food and Drug Administration conducted by Cyveillance Inc.
The closely held Arlington, Va., online risk monitoring firm, whose clients include a number of large pharmaceutical companies that oppose the sale of drugs from Canada, found 1,009 Web sites where people could purportedly buy Canadian prescription drugs. However, only 214 of the sites were registered to entities in Canada or hosted by Canadian Internet service providers.
The U.S. appeared to be home to 686 of the sites, about half of which were registered to a single company, Cyveillance said. Entities in Barbados owned 87 of the sites, while others were traced to Germany, El Salvador, Vietnam, Australia and the Czech Republic.
The data suggests that “consumers, when they’re ordering medication, have to be very careful. A lot of these sites may not be what they seem to be,” said Tom McGinnis, director of pharmacy affairs at the FDA. “Some of these are organized operators trying to fool the consumer” into buying drugs that don’t have the strength, quality or purity of Canadian drugs.
The agency is using information provided by Cyveillance to aid its investigations into counterfeit drug sales by U.S. entities, and in some cases will pass on information about foreign actors to international law enforcement agencies.
American consumers increasingly have turned to prescription drugs sold in Canada as prices of U.S. drugs have soared. In Canada, government price controls have resulted in medicines that, in some cases, are less than half the price of the same drugs sold in the U.S.
The study’s findings cast doubt on the authenticity of the vast majority of sites that claim to be online Canadian pharmacies, said Cyveillance spokesman Todd Bransford, “which brings into question health issues, safety issues for consumers.”
While there are legitimate Canadian pharmacies operating on the Internet, “to just go out and shop for the cheapest drug, the cheapest site, is probably not in your best interest,” he said.
Cyveillance wasn’t able to assess how many of the sites offered counterfeit drugs, but Bransford said researchers saw plenty of red flags, including prices that were way under market or wholesale rates, unusual packaging, dosages that weren’t standard for a given drug, and things such as grammatical errors that suggest a site isn’t run by a professional organization.
Consumer groups pointed out that legitimate sites are not always based in Canada. Many are hosted in the U.S. or overseas, acting as middlemen between consumers and Canadian-based distributors and pharmacies. U.S. sites, though, have been dwindling as states have passed laws to stop the practice, they said.
Currently, it is illegal in the U.S. to import prescription drugs, although federal authorities generally look the other way when individual consumers buy a 90-day supply or less. However, reports of U.S. citizens having prescription drugs purchased in Canada confiscated at the Canadian border have increased in recent months.
It’s doubtful that many consumers care if the Web site from which they purchase prescription drugs is based in Canada, said Jerry Flanagan, director of health policy at the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. Consumers, particularly seniors, are more worried about the safety of the drugs they are buying, he said.
“Most of the drugs that are sold in Canada are made overseas anyway,” Flanagan said. “The beauty of the Internet is that where the company is based is of no concern.”
Still, Flanagan – whose nonprofit group sponsored train rides to Canada during last year’s presidential campaign so that senior citizens could buy prescription drugs – said he regularly cautions consumers to be careful when ordering over the Internet. Sites that don’t require prescriptions or that are not accredited by a legitimate pharmacy organization should be avoided, he said.
The FDA’s McGinnis said consumers should be especially wary of sites that advertise themselves through spam email. And they should inquire of their doctors whether generic drugs, which can be cheaper than brand drugs from Canada, are available to them.
Contact the authors: Riva Richmond at: 201-938-5670 or [email protected]
& Greg Groeller at: 201-938-5286 or [email protected]