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Last Updated: Monday, 11 August, 2003, 00:53 GMT 01:53 UK
Dangers of buying drugs on the net
By Ray Dunne
BBC News Online health staff

The internet - a pill for every ill
All it takes is a credit card in one hand, a mouse in the other and a few choice words on an internet search engine.

With those simple steps, you will be ready to take your pick from thousands of powerful medicines.

Treatments for acne, cancer, impotence and heart disease. Drugs that are generally only available with a prescription.

However, the advent of the internet and its hundreds if not thousands of e-pharmacies means that is no longer always the case.

While the internet is home to many legitimate pharmacies, it is also home to a growing number of pharmacies that operate illegally selling drugs to anyone willing to pay for them.

Some of the drugs on offer
Abolon, an anabolic steroid
Clozapine, an antipsychotic
Evista for osteoporosis
Hyzaar for high blood pressure
Prozac for depression
Ritalin for hyperactivity
Tamoxifen for breast cancer
Viagra for impotence

A quick internet search unearths countless sites offering unlimited supplies of drugs without a prescription.

They ask only for credit card details and for customers to wait "between 10 and 21 days".

Some even provide customers with an A to Z of the hundreds of medicines on offer.

These range from Abolon, an anabolic steroid, to Zyprexa for schizophrenia.

A growing market

A survey by the UK's National Audit Office earlier this year suggested as many as 600,000 Britons have bought prescription medicines over the internet.

In the United States, an estimated one million people buy their medication in this way.

There are no accurate figures on how many people buy these medicines over the net without a prescription.

But with more sites appearing every week, it would be fair to suspect that it is a growing market.

Doctors are becoming increasingly concerned.

"There are potentially very serious risks of getting medication over the internet," says Dr George Rae of the British Medical Association.

"All drugs have potential side-effects. There is also serious problems if you take medication on top of anything else.

"Buying medicines over the internet also means there is no assurance about quality. It is inherently dangerous."

This week, the mother of a 24-year-old man who killed himself after buying drugs online urged the British government to tackle the problem.

At one point, Liam Brackell was receiving 300 anti-depressant tablets in the post every day. By the time of his death, he had tried 23 different types of prescription drugs.

International crackdown

Governments and international agencies are trying to shut down rogue e-pharmacies. However, they appear to be fighting a losing battle.

In the UK, anyone found guilty of selling such drugs can face an unlimited fine and up to two years in prison.

You do not need a prescription to by (sic) our products
To date, there have been just three successful prosecutions against people running UK-based e-pharmacies, which did not operate within the law.

The UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has managed to have seven websites shut down over the past few years.

However, it receives between 10 and 15 reports of unlawful operators every month and websites start up as quickly as they close.

Customs and Excise officials can seize controlled medicines that are sent through the post without proper documentation.

They can also seize medicines that are not described accurately.

"If we do find them, we seize them," says a spokeswoman. "But they are among thousands of packages coming through everyday."

The problem is an international one and governments have started to work together to try to tackle it.

"Other countries are also concerned about the risk to public health," says a spokesman from the UK's Department of Health.

"We work closely with other regulatory authorities in the EU and the US."

Industry concern

The pharmaceutical industry says it is concerned but powerless.

"These are prescription medicines and they are prescription medicines for a reason," says a spokeswoman for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

People should not be taking these medicines without medical advice
ABPI spokeswoman
"People should not be taking these medicines without medical advice," she says.

"We are working with the regulatory authorities and we are happy to do anything we can to help. But really there isn't very much we can do."

The fact remains, the internet and e-pharmacies are to a large extent a law onto themselves.

Websites that operate in countries with tight rules can be shut down.

However, others are more than happy to base themselves elsewhere, in countries without such laws.

One website informs potential customers that they do not need a prescription because they ship from countries where they are not required under the law.

The logistics suggest that even a concerted international effort will ultimately fail.

"This is not just about the UK. It is international. It is worldwide," says Dr Rae.

"Bringing this under control may be difficult if not impossible"

He suggests that educating patients could be one way of tackling the issue.

"We need to get the message across that this is potentially very dangerous. We need to educate patients.

"The implications of buying medicines over the internet are potentially profound."

Online firms breach drugs laws
23 Jun 03  |  Scotland
Internet drug warning
13 Aug 02  |  Health

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