The Hidden Price of Buying Cheaper Drugs Online

Josep M Rovirosa

(DGIwire)  With more and more of the economy moving online—think Amazon, Airbnb and eBay—and supplanting brick-and-mortar retailers, it seems as if the next logical step would be purchasing all our medications online as well. The benefits, of course, would be to avoid waiting in long lines at the local pharmacy—and lower cost. Well don’t shoot the messenger: the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy reports on its website that 10,573 online pharmacies—97 percent of more than 10,900 reviewed—operate in a manner conflicting with pharmacy laws and best-practice standards.

Common violations include identity theft, spam emails riddled with viruses, and selling pills not only counterfeit but containing harmful chemicals such as drywall and rat poison. One would be hard-pressed to find a neighborhood or chain pharmacy that would be able to stay in business if it was poisoning its customers with these kinds of substances.

The recent history of questionable online pharmaceuticals is troubling. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal exposed a supply chain that funneled fake Avastin, a cancer drug produced by Roche Holding AG, to American patients and medical clinics. In 2014, USA Today reported on a federal grand jury indictment against FedEx for knowingly allowing illegal online pharmacies to use the carrier as a distribution network. Most recently, in early March 2015, New Orleans City Business published a story about a Mississippi pharmacist who paid a $2 million settlement to settle charges stemming from his business distributing painkillers online to patients who never had an in-person consultation.

So why go online when it seems to be the province of criminals and other malcontents looking for a quick buck? According to an October 2014 post on The Hill, each year about 50 million people ages 19 to 64 don’t fill a prescription they need due to the expense. Even more unsettling are the five million people who turn to offshore pharmacies each year because they can be almost 90 percent less expensive than their legitimate counterparts. For those pharmacies, the math is simple: the U.S. prescription pharmaceutical industry is a $300 billion per year enterprise, according to

Checking on the legitimacy of medication is a constant challenge. James A. Hayward, Ph.D., president and CEO of Applied DNA Sciences, has a novel solution. “Our SigNature® DNA markers—derived from plant DNA—are designed to protect against counterfeit products in the supply chain, including counterfeit medications,” he says. “It’s a question of safety and of protecting the reputation of a brand.” Based in Stony Brook, NY, Applied DNA Sciences specializes in using unique DNA marking on product labels to enable easy scanning at all points of manufacture and distribution. Using a proprietary process, Applied DNA ensures that each product label is composed of unrepeatable botanical DNA sequences beyond the capabilities of counterfeiters.

Though counterfeit medicine can slip past some vigilant pharmacists, using technologies such as SigNature DNA might help reduce the risk of dangerous drugs reaching consumers.