NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Fake Drugs on the Internet

November 20, 2003

The Food and Drug Administration has long turned a blind eye to individuals buying drugs over the Internet from foreign sources, especially Canadian pharmacies. In fact, the practice has been gaining credibility: Congress is debating legislation that would legalize it, and some state and local governments are exploring it as a way to provide more-affordable medicine to civil employees. But as online sales from foreign pharmacies grow federal regulators are growing increasingly concerned.

Their focus is safety: The biggest concern is that consumers put themselves at risk and end up getting low quality or fake medicines when they buy from foreign sources over the Internet. Another worry: there is no way to alert consumers who import drugs when a defective product gets recalled. According to the FDA:

  • U.S. consumers buy between $700 and $800 million worth of drugs per year from foreign Internet pharmacies.
  • Packages purchased by U.S. consumers from foreign Internet pharmacies will grow to an estimated 5 million this year from 2 million last year.
  • Prescription drugs are 30 to 50 percent cheaper in Canada than the United States.

But the salient fact for many Americans still is the price tag. Because Canada's government-run health-care system puts price controls on drugs, medications are usually 30-50 percent cheaper there. So U.S. consumers are likely to continue to look to Canada to fill their prescriptions, with little sense of how to do so safely.

FDA officials are particularly concerned about consumers who use foreign Web sites to buy drugs that need careful handling. Medicines trucked in from Canada can sit in mail-sorting facilities for days or weeks. Insulin, which must be refrigerated, or delicate biotechnology drugs could degrade in those conditions.

Source: Leila Abboud, "FDA Gets Tougher On Drugs From Canada: Despite Warnings, U.S. Consumers Increasingly Shop for Bargains Online," Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2003.

For text (WSJ subscription required),,SB106928491694827000,00.html


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