Buying medications on the internet has become an increasingly complicated prospect. A recent review by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy showed that 97% of websites they investigated were selling “counterfeit or substandard” medications, apparently including even allegedly reliable chains. Counterfeit drugs often are literally just sugar pills, pressed to look like the originals. These obviously do not pack the punch that patients are hoping for, especially in the cases of cancer, cholesterol, and blood pressure medications.
I’m not sure how to offer a blanket recommendation given these findings, though. Even the article that reported on this waffles between sympathy for families who’ve had to turn to less-than-optimal sources for medications, and derision for those who are gambling with their health “just to save a buck or two.”
If you have good health insurance, then by all means don’t introduce any additional risk to the process by taking your purchases online. Just fill your scripts at a local retail pharmacy and thank your lucky stars. However, if you’re in a position where it’s forego a medication altogether or fill it online, I’m not convinced that the risks of the latter always outweigh the risks of the former. What’s the lesser of two evils?: not getting a medicine that you’re sure you need, or the moderate chance of getting ripped off by an internet pharmacy? It doesn’t seem that the counterfeits are dangerous in themselves, apart from simply being ineffective. So, if the drug you’re buying online is more of a, uh, “lifestyle” thing (e.g. Viagra) than a matter of life and death, you might feel reasonably comfortable with the level of counterfeit risk you incur by shopping online.
Notice that, while the internet may have caused this problem of widespread drug counterfeiting to proliferate, it can also be part of the solution. Always do a Google search for images of what a pill and its packaging should look like – many of them are out there, and readily available for comparison. This is not a totally sure-fire way of weeding out the impostors, as some are much more convincing than others, but knowledge is still power. And if you’re extremely desperate for a drug you cannot afford, look into programs offered by the manufacturer – these do exist, and they may be able to help.
As for me, I’ll be ordering the less-necessary scripts online while eagerly anticipating the day when we can whip up whatever medications we want to take at home for cheap, using a 3-D printer. Those days of sweet-talking a script out of a doctor, collecting your spare change to cover a co-pay, and waiting for sketchy drugs to arrive in ambiguously-marked parcels from overseas will, happily, soon be things of the past.