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Is your online pharmacy safe? The odds are against it

Elaine Marshall is sworn in as secretary of state during a ceremony January 6, 2017, at the Executive Mansion in Raleigh.
Elaine Marshall is sworn in as secretary of state during a ceremony January 6, 2017, at the Executive Mansion in Raleigh. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The N.C. Secretary of State’s Office is spearheading a campaign to warn the public about the dangers of counterfeit prescription drugs sold by bogus online pharmacies.

The centerpiece of the public awareness campaign is alerting consumers that there’s now a website, verifybeforeyoubuy.org, where they can check whether the online pharmacy they’re considering buying medicine from is legitimate.

“You need to verify before you buy,” Secretary of State Elaine Marshall said Thursday at a meeting with The News & Observer’s editorial board.

The goal is to educate consumers about the dangers posed by online pharmacies and “drive down demand” for the counterfeit drugs they sell, Marshall said.

These counterfeit drugs pose a serious health hazard because they usually contain no medication at all or just a small amount of the active ingredient a prescription calls for. Or they could be contaminated.

“I have seen undercover videos ... of pills being made in Mexico in one of those roadside cement mixers where they put in highway paint for the yellow color,” Marshall said. “I don’t know how much lead content there’s got to be in that – a tremendous amount.”

It’s a problem that has largely flown below the radar.

“Consumers definitely don’t know about this issue,” said Marjorie Clifton, executive director of the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies, one of a broad swath of groups that has teamed up with the Secretary of State’s Office on the website and the campaign. CSIP, she said, is funded by internet and technology companies such as Google and Microsoft, but not by any drug or pharmacy companies.

Many doctors have no idea that this problem exists, said Dr. Garrett Franklin of the Cary Medial Group and a member of the N.C. Academy of Family Physicians.

A CSIP survey of about 800 online shoppers found that 56 percent of them planned to purchase future medications online, and 98 percent of prescription drug shoppers believe buying medicine online is perfectly safe.

“The reason this is problematic is that, according to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy and the FDA, 97 percent of online pharmacies at any given time are fake. And the counterfeiters have become so sophisticated, they are able to replicate real sites,” Clifton said. “Consumers are unknowingly buying from these sites.”

Still, there are legitimate online pharmacies. For example, companies such as CVS and Walgreens fill prescriptions online.

Clifton said research shows that online prescription drug consumers tend to be people with legitimate prescriptions for a broad range of health issues who have health insurance. They’re buying online because the prices are lower and they find it more convenient. Many of them are 50 or older and “buying for themselves and their families.”

The Verify Before You Buy website is being promoted by $1 million in search ads funded by Facebook, Google and Microsoft and aimed at North Carolina consumers.

“When a consumer searches a number of medication terms, the campaign pops up,” Clifton said.

The campaign is an outgrowth of the Advisory Council to Combat Counterfeit Medication, which the Secretary of State’s Office assembled last year with the help of $67,000 in grant money from the U.S. Department of Justice. The 12-member organization runs the gamut from the N.C. Council of Churches to the N.C. Medical Board and the N.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Those groups are likewise reaching out to their members to educate them about this issue, said Haley Haynes, deputy secretary of state.

Marshall said the effort plays into her office’s broader efforts to combat counterfeit products of all stripes.

“The pharmaceutical industry is very important to this economy,” she said. “We believe that our mission is to support the economy of North Carolina.”

Marshall acknowledged that consumers are driven to online pharmacies by the high cost of prescription drugs, but said “that’s a Washington, D.C. problem. I’m going to work on the part of the problem I can handle.”

David Ranii: 919-829-4877, @dranii

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