A weekly series by UPI examining the global telecommunications phenomenon known as the World Wide Web.
CHICAGO, April 14 (UPI) -- An Internet ad touts cut-rate prescription drugs, including the muscle relaxant Soma, and claims the online pharmacy in Canada selling the medicines is "FDA approved."
The ad might be persuasive to senior citizens, the likely target audience, but the claim is not true at all.
The reason: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not license foreign pharmacies, nor their online ads or e-mail messages.
"I would guess that we all have received ads similar to this one in e-mail boxes," Peter Neupert, chairman of drugstore.com, the Seattle retailer, stated in testimony before the FDA on Wednesday.
An advance copy of his remarks at the FDA Drug Importation Hearing was provided to United Press International.
"There are thousands more suspicious sites like this," Neupert said.
As online prescription drug sales increase in popularity, it seems new online pharmacies emerge every day. Even a search for information about a particular online pharmacy on the Google.com site brings a bunch of ads for the operations in a "sponsored links" column along with the search results.
"Most consumers are looking for low-prices and licensed pharmacies," said Gabriel Levitt, director of research at PharmacyChecker.com of White Plains, N.Y., a site that evaluates domestic and international dot-coms that sell drugs.
"But the universe of legitimate online pharmacies in the U.S. is pretty small," Levitt told UPI.
Major druggists, such as CVS and Walgreens, now operate online but there are a number of "rogue sites" as well, which are not licensed by state authorities in the United States or provincial authorities in Canada, Levitt said. "No one knows how many of them there are," he added.
The safety of the drugs sold, and the dosages provided, are of concern to the pharmaceutical industry -- and, of course, to the patients themselves. There have been reports of delivery of the wrong doses of drugs, and even the wrong medicines to patients, in scenarios reminiscent of "It's A Wonderful Life!" where the druggist Mr. Gower errs in filling a prescription and would have injured or killed a customer if his delivery boy, the young George Bailey, had not noticed the mistake.
Aside from using start-up services like PharmacyChecker.com, a year-old operation in White Plains, N.Y., checking the veracity of claims by online druggists is difficult.
"It's caveat emptor -- Latin for 'buyer beware' -- when buying drugs online," Ray Van Dyke, a partner in the technology law practice at Nixon Peabody in Washington, D.C., told UPI.
The issue is beginning to attract some attention from policymakers, however. The FDA is holding its Wednesday hearing to gather testimony from industry players about the controversy.
Executives like Neupert of drugstore.com are calling for regulation of online pharmacies and search engines, to prohibit anyone from advertising medications online unless they meet a government-approved certification standard.
"The Internet ... has made it so easy for unscrupulous, unregulated, untouchable entrepreneurs to take advantage of and put U.S. consumers at real risk for their health," Neupert said in his FDA testimony.
A spokesman for drugstore.com, Greg French, said legitimate online operators will not flee from regulation, but rather would embrace it to maintain the integrity of the system.
"There needs to be verified Internet pharmacy practice," French told UPI.
Congress also is looking at the matter, with a number of proposals under advisement.
"These bills are designed to stop pharmacies, domestic and foreign, from skirting laws," Van Dyke said. "This could become a big issue, in a political year, for seniors. The cost of drugs is a major social policy issue."
Consumers can tell if an online site is legitimate by looking at a number of factors, Levitt explained.
They can verify that the site is licensed or operated by a licensed pharmacy. They can ask if the pharmacy requires an original prescription from the physician with each new order. They also can make sure the site has a real world, bricks-and-mortar address, and telephone numbers to ensure another channel of communication.
Last, they can seek to determine if the site has secure encryption -- at least 128 bit, or Secure Socket Layer technology -- before entering financial data, including credit card numbers, said Levitt.
"The idea is to take the buyer-beware quality out of the online drug shopping equation," Levitt said.
Though controversial, online prescription drug sales are not likely to go away anytime soon. The cost savings can be substantial, especially for senior citizens on a fixed income.
"For brand-name drugs, prices are 40-45 percent lower in Canada," Levitt said. "For generic drugs, the consumer is better off finding it in the United States."
Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com