The dangers of counterfeit drugs: 5 ways to ensure you get your medicine safely

Every day, people all across the country buy medications online. Most people probably think they’re ordering the same safe medications they buy at their local brick-and-mortar retail pharmacy. But often, unless they are ordering from that same brick-and-mortar pharmacy’s website, they could be buying counterfeit prescription and over-the-counter medications.

“A recent survey showed that over 95% of the pharmacies — quote, unquote — that were returned via online search did not meet U.S. regulatory requirements,” said Lev Kubiak, vice president and chief security officer for Pfizer.

In fact, the questionable online pharmacies discovered during that survey were operating illegally and selling substandard and fake medical products, according to research led by a professor from the Butler University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

The result: People take fake medicines that contain no pharmaceutical ingredients and do nothing to address their medical needs. Or, scarier still, they take something that can seriously harm or kill them. Alarmingly, criminal organizations increasingly produce counterfeits laced with fentanyl and methamphetamines, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration alert.

“The real risk here is that when someone who does not have any kind of opioid tolerance gets a fentanyl-laced pill, it can kill that person instantaneously,” Kubiak said. (See DEA’s “Facts about Fentanyl.”)

Tips to avoid buying fake medications

Pfizer has begun an awareness campaign to help consumers make the right choice about one of the most important things: their own and their loved ones’ health and well-being. WTOP asked Kubiak to share practical ways consumers can protect themselves from buying counterfeits.

Number 1: Buy from known retailers with licensed brick-and-mortar locations — whether in store or online.

“There’s a very low chance that you will get a counterfeit medicine,” Kubiak said.

Number 2: When buying online, watch for some significant red flags. An unlicensed online pharmacy selling fake medications often won’t ask for a prescription.

“If somebody is not asking for a prescription for a prescription medication, that should be a red flag. If the price is so significantly less than what you are used to paying for your prescription medication, that should be a red flag as well,” he said.

Number 3: Talk about counterfeits with your teen and young adult children, as well as elderly family members, because they may be susceptible to the increasingly sophisticated online storefronts that criminal organizations now create.

Also, have a conversation with your children about “the risks of counterfeit medicines or medicines being sold or traded at their schools by other students,” Kubiak said.

Number 4: If you find a prescribed medication is not working, go talk to your doctor and discuss if it’s possible that you have received a counterfeit. Typically, that’s not a discussion that takes place.

The first thing we do as Americans is go back to the doctor and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t working,’ ” he said. If the possibility of counterfeits isn’t part of the discussion, the doctor might prescribe a different medication, thinking the patient was not responding to the original treatment.

Number 5: Do a little online checking before you make a purchase. Kubiak suggested two websites that provide information about online pharmacies:

  • The Food and Drug Administration offers Know Your Online Pharmacy. It provides links to everystate board of pharmacy’s license database in the U.S. so that people can research pharmacies they find online.
  • The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy maintains Accredited Digital Pharmacies. It lists about 90 pharmacies that have gone through NABP accreditation and takes reports about any online pharmacies operating suspiciously.

“If most people understood the risks that were associated with buying medicines online from unconfirmed pharmaceutical entities or entities that appear to be pharmaceutical companies, they wouldn’t take that risk at all,” Kubiak said.  “If you think about a parachute, if you were jumping out of a plane, where would you buy your parachute from? You would buy it from a very reputable entity and make sure — because your life depended on it. Well, it’s the same with medicines.”

Don’t let prices drive you to counterfeit medications

A chief reason that people often end up buying fake medications arises from financial need.

But most pharmaceutical companies have programs to assist people who are facing financial challenges, Pfizer’s Lev Kubiak said.

“Americans who are looking for a less expensive way to obtain medicines because they have issues associated with finances are not aware that the pharmaceutical companies do have programs by which people can purchase medicines at discounted prices — legitimately,” he said.

Pfizer provides information about its assistance programs on its Pfizer RxPathways website. It’s possible for people to obtain the medicines they need at a reduced price and sometimes even for free depending on their financial circumstances, Kubiak said.

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