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Date Posted: 03:29:51 12/16/03 Tue
Author: Billy
Subject: Online drugs a health risk, officials warn

Online drugs a health risk, officials warn
By Pete Alfano
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Many consumers believe they are beating the system when they order prescription drugs from unregulated online pharmacies, but authorities say they may be risking their health.

That's why consumers are encouraged to purchase drugs online from reputable Internet sites such as Eckerd, CVS, Familymeds and Walgreens, which have brick-and-mortar stores, as well as online vendors drugstore.com and Medco Health Solutions. They are among the 14 Web sites certified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, which helps state licensing boards develop and implement uniform standards.

The certified pharmacies are part of the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites program, implemented in 1999.

They follow stringent criteria and have checks and balances in place. They require a doctor's prescription to be mailed or faxed, and they contact the patient's doctor, health care provider or both to verify the order.

That is what sets them apart fromuncertified Web sites, which usually promise fast, discreet service.

"Unfortunately, it is difficult for some people to distinguish between legitimate operators and online drug diverters," said Susan Winckler of the American Pharmacists Association.

Authorities say consumers should avoid online sites that require completing only a questionnaire that will supposedly be reviewed by a licensed doctor.

Drugs from what federal agencies regard as renegade Web sites might be knockoffs of brand-name drugs. They might be counterfeit or contain ingredients not found in the patented drug, and they might be stronger or weaker than the original.

Authorities say you are at even higher risk if the prescription medication is coming from an international source because the composition of these drugs is even more suspect.

There are several ways to determine the origin of prescription drugs. It is obvious when a Web site is named OffshorePharmacy.

The time needed to fill the order and the lack of any patient requirements are other warning signs.

When the Star-Telegram ordered the anxiety drug Xanax on the Web site www.treatment-online.net, an e-mail said that the order would take 10 to 21 days to fill and would arrive by "international airmail."

The Web site did not require a questionnaire.

Still, authorities are having difficulty persuading consumers not to accept drugs from foreign markets, even though the Food and Drug Administration says such imports are illegal. And that includes drugs from Canada and Mexico.

Some cities and states are defying the FDA and have launched a prescription drug revolution. Leading the way is Springfield, Mass., which is allowing city workers and retirees to order prescription drugs from Canada for significant savings.

Springfield Mayor Michael Albano struck a deal with a Canadian wholesaler, which not only eased the financial burden of health care for the workers but also helped Albano deal with a city budget deficit.

Last week, Boston and New Hampshire announced they would allow residents to follow Springfield's lead.

Other countries can offer huge discounts because they have price controls on U.S. drugs. In the United States, the sky's the limit.

Web site operators from foreign countries sell drugs to U.S. consumers or make them available to online pharmacy operators in the United States, which can discount them. This is also illegal, according to federal law.

Pfizer, which makes Viagra, says the prohibitive cost of developing drugs is the reason U.S. consumers pay higher prices.

"Research and development is not a cheap process and carries a lot of risk," said Bryant Haskins, director of communications for Pfizer. "It costs $800 million to get a product on the market. And a lot of them don't pan out."

Americans are not commiserating with drug makers. But Tom McGinnis, the director of pharmacy affairs for the FDA, cautioned that even prescription drugs from Canada may carry risks.

"Some drugs made for the Canadian market are different than for the U.S.," he said. "We still worry about Canada."

Tim Gorski, an Arlington physician, said one of his patients recently showed him birth control pills she purchased in Mexico. It was a familiar brand name, he said, but it did not have the company's typical packaging and address.

"Who knows what's in it?" he said.

Consumers who deal with unregulated online pharmacies will receive enticements to order refills. E-mail reminders arrived at the Star-Telegram less than a month after its orders were received.

One identified the Star-Telegram as a preferred customer, entitled to deeper discounts.

There is one more thing to keep in mind if you are ordering drugs from these Web sites to be discreet: Your privacy really isn't protected, as promised.

The Star-Telegram re-ceived a phone call from a customer service representative for OnlinePharma-cy.com who asked: "How's that Prozac working out for you?"

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