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Does Google Police Online Pharmacies Enough?

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Recent deaths associated with drugs bought at online pharmacies have brought the issue front and center for many Americans. It’s still unclear as to whose responsibility it is to police them, but the strongest critics are pointing fingers at search engines and comparison-shopping sites.

In British Columbia, a 57-year-old woman was found dead with bags of pills in her home she’d ordered online. Investigators found that the pills contained traces of uranium, strontium, selenium, aluminum, arsenic, barium and boron.

Security company Sophos’ senior technology consultant Graham Cluely blamed the problem on hijacked websites being exploited by spammers. But Michael Brown, president of HealthPricer.com, says it’s lack of policing that’s to blame.

"The Internet really is the Wild West," he said in an interview with WebProNews. "If you did a search on Viagra, I’ll be you’d find at least 50% that were illegal."

Brown’s estimation matches the Canadian Pharmacist’s Association’s revelation that up to 50% of the drugs bought on the Internet come from online pharmacies that can be counterfeit or substandard.

Adding to the problem, says Brown, are second tier comparison shopping engines like eBay’s Shopping.com, BizRate, Shopzilla, TheFind.com, and Comparison.com. These sites are powered by feed submissions from retailers who also buy sponsored links.

A Viagra search on Shopping.com, for example, brings up (pun not intended) three hits for generic Viagra. "That’s illegal," says Brown, noting that the sale of generic Viagra is against the law in the US.

Brown believes the comparison shopping sites aren’t selling bogus pills purposefully. It may be they aren’t policing well enough, putting them at risk of being perceived as participating in illegal practices. 

With 80% of American Internet users, or 113 million adults, searching for health-related information (comScore), there’s a lot of room for false perceptions. Buying prescription medicine online is rarer than information-seeking though, with online drug sales only making up 1% of $250 billion American prescription market.

Brown takes the opportunity to tout his own company, HealthPricer.com, a site that requires all merchants to have a brick-and-mortar presence, accreditation, and to be a licensed pharmacy with a pharmacist on staff.

"A merchant will contact us and the first thing we’ll do is we’ll go through their website, not with a spider, but personally, to make sure its structured in a way that’s easy for the consumer to use. [We look at] their license, their shipping policy, [the safety of] the transaction process, and their customer service policy."

That’s more, he says than Google or Yahoo do, whom Brown criticizes for having too open an application process for pharmaceutical sales and advertising. "The consumer thinks that Google endorses the seller, but it was a spider. Google and others don’t know it’s going on. They have no way to police."

Google, at least, disagrees with that statement. Google spokesperson Michael Mayzel told WebProNews that Google has a longstanding policy regarding advertising prescription drugs, and also requires third-party verification.

Mayzel cites Google’s AdWords content policy:

Pharmacies advertising prescription drugs or using prescription drug keywords may only target the U.S. or Canada, and must be PharmacyChecker approved. Ads will not run until a valid PharmacyChecker identification number is provided. AdWords only accepts advertising from pharmacies that are based in the U.S. or Canada.

Google’s AdWords policing also came under fire this week after malicious code found its way into Google’s sponsored links. Our David Utter reported on this topic earlier. Mayzel says, in both instances, Google works hard to enforce its policies.

"We actively work to detect and remove sites that serve malware to our users both in our ad network and in our search results," he said. 

"We have manual and automatic processes in place to detect and enforce these policies.  In short, we take this issue very seriously.  We also encourage our advertisers to contact Google directly if they have concerns or detect suspicious malware.  Lastly, we encourage users to educate themselves on preventive measures to keep safe."

Does Google Police Online Pharmacies Enough?
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  • Barry James

    We operate an online pharmacy (www.MedstoreInternational.com )that sources products from many countries worldwide through a network of licensed bricks and motar pharmacies. We have a Pharmacy Checker accreditation yet we are not able to advertise on Google or get accreditation from HealthPricer because we are not based in North America.

    This exactly the result the pharmaceutical industry has working towards for many years. That is, to have influential third party organisations in the online pharmacy ‘space’ regulate sites to ensure that only certain (controllable) retailers can compete in their most lucrative market – the USA.

    Canada has in recent years had many lower priced drugs. However the rising canadian dollar and effective Big Pharma strategies now control and restrict the product supply to Canada. This has seen the Canadian pricing advantage diminish significantly. Now the real savings are further afield. Countries like Australia, New Zealand and even India offer exceptionally high quality products for a fraction of the USA price. www.MedstoreInternational.com searches for these high quality, lower priced products however we are often unable to let US consumers know they are available because of the policies adopted by organizations like Google and Health Pricer.

    The Google and Health Pricer policies are not driven by any ability they posess to ensure quality products or processes from the pharmacies they “authorise”. They are rather a response to the significant ongoing pressure from the Pharmaceutical Industry on gatekeepers, in all areas of the business, to restrict the access to their highly profitable US market.

    How afer all does the location of the bricks and motar pharmacy guarantee product quality? There are a number of North American online pharmacies offering exactly the same products as www.MedstoreInternational.com but at significantly higher prices. We know this because we use exactly the same suppliers. Why therefore shouldn’t we be able to advise consumers about these products in the same way as the North American pharmacies selling them? Who is the Google and Health Pricer policy really serving? Certainly not the consumer!

    What needs to be understood is the relative power of competing parties in this market. For the operators of www.MedstoreInternational.com the focus of our daily activity is sourcing high quality, low priced pharmaceutical products. We do not have the time or resources to do more than this. The Pharmaceutical Industry on the other hand spends many tens of millions of dollars each year lobbying policy makers and gatekeepers and they would not continue to do so if they were not having some success.

    • tklawsonpharmtech

      Free enterprise is the backbone of the capitolistic system. High priced medicines are subject to price reductions, undercutting the middleman. Although The new “Revitalization Act” just went into law, it prohibits scheduled products or limits them to 50 dosage units. The strangle-hold of big pharma doesn’t serve the uninsured. Or the under represented needing medicine from getting to the consumer. No agency can police the internet very well. It is beyond the scope of the authori,ties as it comprises several hundred million websites of varied businesses. The American people are savvy, they will shop until they find the most competitive price. The small guy, without the “Brick and Morter” has a viable chance as any to make a profit and ALSO be on the up and up. If the Gov’t wishes, they could tax the internet(at the source) and track it thru the revenue it produces. off shore Accts. would be hard to enforce effectively.

  • tklawsonpharmtech

    The Pharmaceutical Powerhouses has a multi-billion dollar lobby-rich, cozy, in-cahoots, rosy comfortable live-in relationship with the congressional benefactors-Along with the AMA. Sooner or later the American people will vote their pocketbooks regardless of what the Federal Gov’t recommends. They demand affordable medicines and quality. They will not tolerate overpriced, largely unavailable products due by regulating the consumer. The result could cause a untimely demise.

  • http://www.medstoreinternational.com Barry

    Isn’t it interesting that whenever there is an article that refers to “the many deaths” associated with the use of online pharmacies, writers are forced to use one of only two instances where deaths have been directly linked to buying drugs online.

    There is no discussion on how small a proportion of total online pharmacy transacions that this represents. Neither is there any comparison with the data from published studies that have reported an alarmingly high proportion of deaths resulting from the “regular” pharmaceutical supply chain.

    It begs the question. “Who is driving this discussion?” Not the many millions who have used online pharmacies and who are happy with the products they have received and the savings they have made! You have to suspect that those who have most to gain from more vigorous control of online pharmacies are encouraging the publication of these poorly researched articles that are so obviously written to generate fear in the minds of consumers.

    We have operated an online pharmacy site for over 5 years. We source quality products from all over the world. Many are brand name products made by the same companies and in the same manufacturing facilities as the same products sold in the USA. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that there is a greater potential for conterfeit or sub standard products in Australia, UK, Canada, or Sweden than in the USA. The US does not have a monopoly on quality products! Even in India there are a great many pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities that are world class, and that have been inspected and approved by the US FDA.

    My advice would be to read all articles like this one with a great deal of cynicism. By all means weed out the online pharmacies that are dealing in danerous or sub potent products but don’t for a minute propose that all online pharmacies outside of North America are dangerous. It is simply not so!

    Thankfully Google and the comparison shopping portals referred to in this article are not threatened or bullied by those who seek to force a change in their policies. They deserve everyone’s support because their resistance ensures the Internet can continue to be an environment free from political manipulation and big business agendas.

  • http://N/A TK Lawson

    The Ryan-Haight Act (Feinstein-CA-Sessions-Wis),Prohibited interstate internet commerce of Rx’s.Fines run into 250,000.00 and imprisonment. One CAN order controlled drugs with a Dr that has a License in the State you reside. He MUST see you in person at least once a Yr. Schedule II Rx’s must be presribed in person. The Dr CAN give you THREE separate scripts for ANY C-II presription. This process is pricey but legal. If you can afford this method, do not think you can travel State to State to Dr shopping. A National System is almost in place in 48 States. These are mostly for C-II’s but C-III’s & C-IV’s also may be included. Your Dr ALSO has REAL time computer access to your profile as does your RPh.

  • http://N/A TK Lawson RPhT

    I would never recommend online pharmacies unless certified by the ‘VIPPS” system. Obama Care will offer some assistance for the abject poverty stricken. Medicare premiums will go up. Pension benefits will be reduced. As it relates to ADHD, the cost is usually small. Patients (psychitrists say) take < half of the Adderall dispensed.

    • Kim Lawsom

      ADDENDUM: example, All the debate about the 2nd amendment. Oh no they’re after our guns again! Imagine if they can’t get their pain meds? It will be a situation intolerable with those in intractable unrelenting pain. Never mind the guns…..”I JUST WANT MY PILLS”! Suicides May sky rocket. Let’s hope not.

  • Kim Lawsom

    With the new”ObamaCare, it is yet to determine the response it will get as it relates to co-pays, deductibles, covered Rx’s.waiting periods, and if the practitioner will accept the insurance plan. As far as I know, they can opt out for cash only should they not want auditors(regulators) like insurance people telling them how to practice medicine. We SHALL see! Things will be extremely unnavigable for those not familiar with the mayhem already in place. Socialized medicine was coming. Saying that, one will STILL be in a conundrum. Confounded will be replaced with a IRS division of agents trying to do there best to mediate and give direction to the baffled. No free lunch though. The VA, for example, get all there drugs for a ultra low price. The big insurance companies can’t compete with a Gov’t that can undercut the Health care premiums. Without good reimbursement, the Dr’s and PA’s and NP’s can’t operate without compensation.