Like the recent report on Microsoft Bing’s sponsored ads for online pharmacies, a new report released this week by Internet-pharmacy verification organization LegitScript and antispam firm KnujOn focuses on the legitimacy of online pharmacies advertising in sponsored links on Yahoo.com.
The authors found that 82% of the pharmacies reviewed appearing in Yahoo’s sponsored links led to online pharmacies that do not require a prescription, violate federal and state laws, and violate Yahoo’s own advertising policies. This is similar to Bing’s results, which showed that nearly 90% of the pharmacies studied fit the classification of a “rogue” pharmacy. (Microsoft has since issued a response to the Bing report.)
The authors were able to purchase three different drugs from two websites without a prescription, including a generic version of Nexium (esomeprazole magnesium, AstraZeneca, London) that was shipped from India; the anticonvulsant Carbatrol (carbamazepine extended-release, Shire, Wayne, PA) that was shipped from India and was later identified to the authors as a “knockoff” by Shire; and the potentially habit-forming painkiller tramadol.
As in the Bing study, the authors found that many of the reviewed pharmacies were not based in the US or Canada, which is a violation of Yahoo’s (as well as Bing’s and Google’s) policies for pharmacies advertising on its website. Communications with the pharmacies revealed that the drugs would be shipped from or through India, Turkey, Singapore, or Barbados.
A Yahoo spokesperson told CNN that “All known violators [of its advertising policy] are removed from the Yahoo network,” and that “we have implemented a number of protective measures to protect the marketplace, including a more robust manual review process.” According to CNN, Yahoo also said, “As this report illustrates, the online pharmacy marketplace is challenging to police. However, we take swift action when we become aware of violators and we have a number of safeguards in place to protect our advertisers and users.”
The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) issued a press release praising the report for shedding light on the problem of rogue pharmacies advertising on major search engines like Yahoo. The organization had this to say:
“Like the authors of the report, NABP encourages Yahoo and other search engines to hold advertisers selling prescription medications accountable to the same laws and practice standards required of any legitimately operating pharmacy. To enable Internet drug outlets operating beneath those standards to continue advertising through otherwise reputable channels is simply a danger to the public health.”
NABP also pointed out that it does not recognize the third-party verification service, in this case, PharmacyChecker, that either approved or did not detect the illegitimate pharmacies in its screening process. LegitScript is the only pharmacy-verification service identified by NABP as adhering to its standards for evaluating online pharmacies. The three major search engines use the pharmacy-verification service PharmacyChecker to monitor the legitimacy of the advertising pharmacies, and it is clear that the standards are different from those of NABP and LegitScript.
The co-authors included a note in the Yahoo report, likely in response to media coverage of the initial Bing report that identified LegitScript as a “competitor” of PharmacyChecker. The authors noted that LegitScript does not charge Internet pharmacies for verification or approval, and said “this issue needs to be brought to light as a matter of public health and safety, regardless of who verifies Internet pharmacy advertisers for the search engines.” The co-authors’ note seems to be designed to quiet any ideas of an ulterior motive of the report to single out PharmacyChecker or to gain a competitive advantage. The authors said in the report that “the primary issue here is not which organization performs verification services. Rather, the issue is what standards Internet pharmacies are held to. The authors strongly believe that the search engines should require Internet pharmacies to adhere to standards developed or approved by the NABP.”
John Horton, president of LegitScript, told Pharmaceutical Technology, “I think the important point is that the current system isn’t working. We think that the facts in our report are proof of that. We do encourage PharmacyChecker to release the full list of all of the websites they’ve approved. Without that kind of transparency, it’s going to be difficult to understand how and why these illegal websites are being allowed to advertise.”