For the millions of Americans who buy medications from outside the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends caution. Do you really know what the risks are to buying medications that are not regulated or inspected by the FDA? Read on to learn more about drug safety.
Driven to Desperation for Cheaper Prescription Drugs
Every day, Americans skirt federal law by crossing borders to purchase medications abroad. Even more Americans purchase prescription medications from online pharmacies. For many people, this questionable practice is the only way they can afford the medication they need to stay healthy, or to stay alive. In the quest for affordable prescriptions, many Americans ignore warnings from the FDA and pharmaceutical industry about the increased risk of contamination or counterfeit products.
Diabetic patients are among those most likely to purchase prescription medications online. Access to insulin is a matter of life and death. By extension, the inability to pay U.S. pharmacy prices for insulin can be deadly serious. For precisely this reason, many consumers travel to Canada or Mexico to meet their needs, or turn to online pharmacies.
The practice is so common, in fact, that the Trump Administration has plans to legalize the importation of certain prescription drugs from countries where they sell at deeply discounted prices. The new plan addresses wholesale imports, but not necessarily individual consumer transactions.
The Foreign Pharmacy Experience
In the U.S., even diabetes patients with health insurance can still pay thousands of dollars per month for insulin. In Mexico, insulin is available for less than 10 percent of the price most people would pay in the U.S.
Many consumers are shocked at just how easy it is, and how little money it costs, to buy prescription drugs in Mexican pharmacies. Most people who try it pass through U.S. customs smoothly if they declare the prescription drugs and show their American prescription.
If it’s so easy and cost so little, why isn’t everyone buying prescriptions from Mexico? Mainly, because it is actually illegal to do so. However, prosecutions for purchases like this are rare.
As a matter of fact, FDA guidelines allow federal agents to refrain from enforcement when consumers purchase quantities that are obviously meant for personal use and the product does not present a risk to the purchaser.
Quantities that are easily recognizable for personal use are generally no more than a three month supply of the drug. Purchases of larger quantities are much more likely to result in legal trouble, not to mention confiscation of the drugs.
This practice always carries the risk that a stickler border agent may confiscate and dispose of the drugs, but they probably won’t arrest you.
The Online Pharmacy Experience
Most online purchases of pharmaceutical products from foreign pharmacies go entirely unchallenged. The FDA can legally refuse the entry of the package at any international mail facility, but that does not happen often. More typically, officials detain pharmaceutical packages for several days waiting for FDA inspection.
The delays may potentially deprive you of your medication. Consequently, if you order from online pharmacies, be sure to order well before your prescription runs out to compensate for any potential delays.
You also want to make sure that you are not being taken advantage of. The FDA offers these tips:
- Before purchasing from an online pharmacy, confirm it is licensed in its country of origin.
- Order from online pharmacies headquartered in countries with strong pharmacy regulations.
Canada, New Zealand, Australia, most of Western Europe, and Turkey are countries known to have well-regulated pharmacies. Before clicking the submit payment button make sure the pharmacy has published an address and phone number on its website.
Be on your guard however, because rogue pharmacy sites will sometimes display a Canadian flag prominently when they are actually operated by scanners with no connection to Canada at all. Medicine from websites like this is not trustworthy in the slightest and may put your health at risk.
FDA Offers Tool for Checking Online Pharmacies
Make sure your online pharmacy is operating legally by utilizing the FDA’s BeSafeRx tool and by looking for these signs:
- Requiring a valid prescription from a doctor or another licensed healthcare provider.
- Licensed by a U.S. state board of pharmacy or equivalent state agency.
- Have a U.S. state-licensed pharmacist available to answer your questions.
- Located in the U.S., and providing a street address.
Spot and avoid rogue pharmacies by avoiding sites that:
- Allow the purchase of prescription medicine without a valid prescription.
- Do not have a U.S. state-licensed pharmacist available to answer your questions.
- Offer prices so low they seem too good to be true.
- Advertise with unsolicited emails or spam.
- Have an address in a country not known for its strong pharmacy regulation practices.
FDA Warns of Risks When Ordering Prescriptions Online
Safe online purchasing of something as important as prescription medication requires careful vetting of the seller. Americans who buy their prescription drugs online risk getting a shipment of something other than what they paid for, or worse, receiving prescription drugs that are not safe. The internet marketplace allows for plenty of rogue operators who may or may not be scrupulous or honest.
These pharmacies regularly sell prescription drugs that can be dangerous because they can:
- Have too much or too little of the active ingredient you need to treat your condition or disease.
- Contain the wrong, potentially harmful active ingredient.
- Contain no active ingredients at all.
- Be stored improperly, rendering the drug ineffective.
- Lack proper sanitation and sterility processes.
Without FDA oversight or a formal approval process, you may be risking contamination with bacteria, foreign materials, or harmful substances.
Tips for Saving on Prescriptions
As your doctor writes your prescription, always be sure to ask if there is a therapeutic alternative or a generic version of the drug available. Many of the most common generic drugs are available in American pharmacies at rates lower than the same medication from Canada or Mexico.
Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about prescription discount programs that may help save money. Some programs can save you money by choosing a generic, or by filling 90 days instead of 30 days at a time.
Do your own research and use web-based tools that do the vetting for you. This can be key to saving money on prescriptions. Sometimes, there is not a compelling reason to seek drugs from foreign marketplaces. In other scenarios, buying drugs from abroad is the more economical choice.
Have Questions about FDA Warnings?
If you regularly purchase prescription medications online, you may have questions about whether you should continue. Without FDA regulation, online pharmacies can market products that are unsafe. Your health and safety is of the utmost importance. Find out more about the risks of online pharmacies by contacting Drug and Device Watch.
No matter where you purchase your medication, you certainly deserve to know what your legal rights are, and how to get help if you suffer an adverse event. Drug and Device Watch can help. Submit our online form for more information or call 1-888-458-6825 to request a free consultation with an attorney.