Consumers are now purchasing prescription drugs and other health products online instead of going to the corner drugstore.

The Internet has posed a variety of problems for the regulation of legal drug purchases. State, federal, and international regulatory and law enforcement agencies face unique challenges regarding online drug sales. It is possible to obscure the product’s source and provide some degree of anonymity to those responsible for the sale and shipment. It is not uncommon for parties to a transaction to be geographically dispersed and never meet. Therefore, regulatory and enforcement issues cross state, federal, and international jurisdictional lines.

Many online pharmacies are legitimate enterprises that provide convenience, privacy, and the safeguards of traditional prescription procedures. Most consumers can use these services with the same level of confidence they have in their local pharmacy. Even though some are large drugstore chains, many of these legitimate businesses are local “mom and pop” pharmacies that have been set up to serve customers electronically.

However, consumers should beware of those who use the internet as an outlet for services or products that are already illegal in the offline world. Rogue sites either sell unapproved goods or circumvent established consumer protection procedures if they sell approved goods. Some sites only require customers to fill out a questionnaire before ordering prescription drugs, avoiding any face-to-face interaction with a health professional.

Using this practice might undermine the value of a licensed health care professional’s direct supervision and physical evaluation. The internet allows you to bypass this safety net.

Such an approach sets the stage for problems such as dangerous drug interactions and harm from contaminated, counterfeit, or outdated medications. Prescription websites that rely on questionnaires are also problematic. Patients risk receiving an inappropriate medication and may forfeit the opportunity to obtain a correct diagnosis or identify a contraindication to the drug. The FDA is investigating numerous pharmaceutical websites suspected of violating the law and plans to take legal action if necessary. Enforcement priorities for the agency include internet surveillance, health fraud, and prescription drugs sold without a valid prescription.

Consumers are increasingly using the internet for health reasons. Market research firm Cyber Dialogue Inc. reports health concerns are the sixth most common reason people go online.

Some people find purchasing prescription drugs online offers advantages not available at local drugstores, including:

  • Drugs are more readily available for shut-ins and those who live far from pharmacies
  • Comparative shopping across multiple sites to find the best prices and products
  • A greater variety of products and greater convenience
  • Written product info and references to other sources are easier to access than in a storefront pharmacy
  • Customers can order products and consult with a pharmacist from the comfort of their own homes

It is also claimed that online drug shopping saves consumers money. Some cases support this claim. Consumer Reports conducted a survey that found that purchasing certain drugs online can save consumers as much as 29 percent.

Is it Illegal to Buy Prescription Drugs from a Foreign Online Pharmacy?

It is technically illegal to buy prescription drugs online because they have not been approved by the FDA, meaning they are counterfeit drugs. It is, however, very rare that someone would be prosecuted for buying prescription drugs that are only for personal use and for which they have a valid prescription.

The type of drug being purchased is taken into account, with more attention paid to painkillers, tranquilizers, and other prescription drugs with a viable black market value. However, people who sell prescription drugs online are likely to be prosecuted for selling them and may also be prosecuted for prescription fraud if they have obtained the drugs illegally.

Consumers who search for health products online can find dozens of sites that FDA officials say are illegal. Some specialize in providing drugs such as Viagra, the baldness therapy Propecia (finasteride), or the weight-loss medicine Xenical (orlistat). Others, based in overseas countries, promise to deliver prescription drugs at a much cheaper rate than their domestic rate, but the drugs may be different from those approved in the United States, or they may be expired.

Other sites advertise that customers can buy drugs without a prescription or make false health claims. Today, drug websites are found in nearly every state and country with a phone line.

Is It Illegal to Purchase Medicine from a Domestic Online Pharmacy?

In this area, most prosecutions target suppliers, marketers, and distributors, but several categories of violations may affect the purchaser and consumer of an online pharmacy. The following are areas where the government has successfully prosecuted those involved with online pharmacies:

  • Import, sale, or distribution of an adulterated or misbranded drug
  • A new drug that has not been approved for sale, distribution, or importation
  • Illegal promotion of a drug
  • The sale or dispensing of a prescription drug without a valid prescription
  • Counterfeit drugs
  • Purchasing prescription drugs in such quantity as to infer selling
  • Purchasing prescription drugs for illicit use and sale on the black market

To improve this situation, some feel new laws are necessary. Some reps from the pharmacy industry are opposed to legislation or additional powers for regulatory agencies because current laws are sufficient to address the issue. It remains to be seen whether new legislation will improve oversight of online pharmacies.

How Online Sales Work

Legitimate online pharmacies generally operate as follows:

The pharmacy requires users to submit credit and insurance information to open an account. If an out-of-state license is required, the pharmacy is licensed to sell prescription drugs in the state where it operates and where it sells.

After creating an account, users must submit a valid prescription. Physicians can call it in, or users can deliver it to the pharmacy by fax or mail.

Most online pharmacies ship their products from a central location, while others allow users to pick up their prescriptions at a local pharmacy. Most prescriptions are delivered within three days, often at no cost. Some sites will deliver overnight for an additional fee.

There is typically a mechanism for users to ask questions of the pharmacist, either through e-mail or a toll-free number.

Taking Action by Consumers

Consumers have hundreds of drug-dispensing websites to choose from, so how can they know which ones are legitimate, especially when it is very easy to set up a site that looks very professional and promises deep discounts or minimal hassle?

The FDA offers these tips to consumers who purchase health products online:

  • Don’t purchase from websites that offer to prescribe a prescription drug for the first time without a physical exam, sell prescription drugs without a prescription, or sell drugs not approved by the FDA.
  • Don’t conduct business with sites that don’t provide access to a pharmacist who can answer your questions.
  • Sites that do not identify who they are and do not provide a U.S. address and phone number to contact in the event of a problem should be avoided.
  • Sites that promise a “new cure” for a serious disorder or a quick fix for many ailments should be avoided.

Should I Consult a Defense Attorney if I Buy or Sell Prescription Drugs Online?

Since the Internet is constantly evolving, legal regulations are rapidly changing. Federal and state laws are enacted so rapidly that it can be difficult to keep up with the current state of the law. Violations in this area may also result in heavy fines and penalties. Therefore, consultation with a drug lawyer can be extremely beneficial.