The online sale of pharmaceutical products is a big headache for regulators. The Internet is the counterfeiter’s dream market stall, and virtually begs to be abused. Some surveys suggest that more than 60% of drugs purchased online are fake. But governments and regulators are fighting back. In July, the EMA welcomed a new directive on falsified medicines that had a strong focus on the sale of illegal medicinal products on the Internet—somewhat obscurely referred to as “sale at a distance to the public”—and the European Commission was charged with creating a cryptographic logo to identify legal sites.
However, more recently it has been the advertising of such online pharmacies on Google that caused the stir. Along with the supply of counterfeit products, illegal online pharmacies often flaunt the law in terms of prescription requirement; clearly concerned, the United States Department of Justice launched an inquiry in May.
$500 million in settlement money later (which is perhaps, in Google dollars, a slap on the wrist), and a change in Google’s Adwords policy, and we have another victory for regulators…
However, looking at the issue on a higher level, the ever-shifting nature of the Internet coupled with the never-ending enthusiasm of counterfeiters does seem like the recipe for a recurring regulatory nightmare. How exactly do you shut down a virtual company, or stop that same company reopening with a new name or web address the next day? Whose responsibility is it? Should Google censor our search results to preclude illegal pharmacies? “Censorship online? Absolutely not!” shout the masses. In my opinion, inquiries focused on Google, or any other Internet behemoth, is perhaps not the answer; those resources could be better spent elsewhere…
For me, increasing public awareness is the only way forward. Do people know the real risks of buying medicines online or are they merely cavalier in attitude? My personal mail provider (coincidentally, also Google) does a great deal to protect me from the hundreds of emails offering “V1AGRA ONLINE WITHOUT PRESCRIPTION” and the likes, and this is welcome if only to save inbox space and not my health.
But shielding people from the risk is rudimentary. Government programmes highlighting dangers in more consumer friendly ways could be a lot more successful than trying to regulate the million places where illegal pharmacies pervade our increasingly online selves.
Report from Europe: the Falsified Medicines Directive (PharmTech July 2011 issue)