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Internet Medicines: A Literal Web of Danger
The Internet has made a tremendous impact in the way we live, work and play today. It has also transformed the shopping experience for many of us, offering us the opportunity to buy things in the comfort, convenience and privacy of our own homes. Electronic commerce spans global markets, making a wide variety of products – from simple household items to luxury goods - easily available to consumers all over the world with a simple click of the mouse.
Cyberspace has also become home today to many platforms that sell medicinal drugs and other health products such as health supplements. This trend poses a safety concern because many products purchased from online sources have been shown to be of poor quality. This means that could be counterfeit or adulterated or contaminated with banned substances.
In fact, according to the World Health Organisation, one in two medicines sold over the Internet is fake. A 2008 report by the European Alliance for Access to Safe Medicines, a community interest organisation, also noted that three in five medicines sold over the Internet are either counterfeit or sub-standard.
Buyers Beware - That's the Way!
In Singapore, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) monitors the safety issues related to medicines and health products.
It is illegal for anyone to import or bring into Singapore any medicinal product without approval from HSA, so we can take action against individuals who flout the law. It is also an offence to sell or offer for sale, any medicinal product over the Internet without a licence from HSA.
While regulatory measures and standards are targeted at dealers of health products, the proliferation of Internet sites selling health products can be influenced by consumers' demand. It is therefore important for the public to appreciate the dangers associated with these products, and we would like to encourage consumers to make a responsible decision and discerning choice to avoid buying from dubious sources.
Why it is Not Worth the Risk to Buy Internet Medicines and Health Products
Risk: You know next to nothing about the product as there is usually little information about the seller and where/how the product was manufactured.
A key concern regarding medicines and health products bought from online sources stems from the fact that these are usually supplied by dubious companies or persons. Some of these provide no contact information or have temporary websites. In view of this, we often have no way of keeping track of these online dealers, and are unable to contact them should problems arise. It is also risky to purchase products from these dealers as we are unable to get clear information on where they are located, the source of their products, and the conditions under which the products were manufactured and stored.
Risk: You could well be buying products that contain dangerous, even deadly, ingredients.
Another disturbing possibility associated with health products from the Internet is that we might not be getting what we paid for in the first place. Tests conducted on medicines and health products bought online have revealed medicines containing banned and dangerous additives. There have also been instances of counterfeit medicines containing no active ingredients or expired products being sold to unsuspecting buyers as well.
Risk: You are likely to be buying products that have not been assessed for their safety and have not been approved for use locally.
There are also additional risks when buying medicinal drugs from overseas. Do note that while the drug may be approved for sale in its country of origin, it might not be approved for use locally. Your package may also be detained by the immigration authorities when it arrives in Singapore.
Be a Smart Consumer!
HSA strongly encourages consumers to take responsibility, not gamble with their health, or place price, convenience and privacy above all else by purchasing health products from dubious or unfamiliar sources.
Here are four things you can do as a smart consumer:
Tip 1: Stay clear from all online sources selling western medicines.
All western medicines require approval from HSA before they can be marketed legally in Singapore. While they may share similar names and appearances as those sold at clinics, most medicines sold through online stores are unlikely to have been assessed by HSA for their safety, quality and effectiveness. As consumers, we might have no way of tracking how these online stores get their supply of drugs and how safe these sources are.
Moreover, because prescription medicines contain potent pharmaceutical ingredients, you should also not take them if they are not prescribed for you by your doctor. It can be very dangerous for you to be taking these medicines without being examined and monitored by a doctor.
Tip 2: Beware of “free consultations” and “special offers” from online sources.
- Online pharmacies which offer free medical consultation and prescription drugs without a physical consultation.
- Random websites, auction sites and electronic flyers sent through email that offer products for sale at prices that are significantly lower than the cost of the same products sold at registered clinics and established pharmacies.
- Spam email solicitations, forum postings and “blogshops” that involve unknown and ambiguous persons or dealers with no identifiable contact details.
Consumers should always adopt safe buying practices by buying their medicinal drugs and health products from regulated and licensed sources such as registered clinics and pharmacies.
Tip 3: Do not be misled by product claims, regardless of how convincing and sensible they may sound.
“Scientific evidence” claims
Many online pharmacies and websites feature information promoting the safety and effectiveness of their products. To build their credibility, some may claim that their products were developed based on “scientific studies” and “evidence”. Others may even make reference to medical journals that published research articles on the products. Such details are usually not verifiable, and may not be accurate or authentic. Chances are good that the scientific studies were never even conducted in the first place, and that the journals that supposedly carried the findings are bogus.
Online dealers who claim that their products are “100% effective” or “100% safe” are unfortunately not painting an accurate picture of things because no product can be guaranteed to be free of risk.
Similarly, “natural” or “herbal” health supplements sold online have been found laced with potent medicinal ingredients.
Consumers should also always be wary of online sources that claim to sell medicines that promise “miracle cures” for serious diseases or health supplements that provide “quick fix” solutions for “beauty treatments” such as losing weight within a short timeframe.
“Personal success story” claims
The main interest of many online dealers is to market their products and they may employ gimmicks to encourage people to buy.
Be wary of personal testimonials about ”guaranteed quick results” experienced from taking a product bought online. Comments and feedback left at online chatrooms and forums on the “effectiveness” of products purchased from the Internet should always be viewed with some skepticism regardless of how convincing they may sound.
Tip 4: See your doctor or pharmacist if you have a health problem.
“Playing doctor” by reading online remedies and self-medicating with medicines and other health products bought online may put you at unnecessary risks. Not only could you misdiagnose your condition, but putting off a visit to the doctor's may be harmful as it delays the correct treatment to help you get better. You may also inadvertently increase the likelihood of you experiencing an adverse reaction if you take drugs that interact with each other or with other foods.
Because no medicine or health product (including those bought from licensed sources) is completely risk-free, you should always seek medical advice from your doctor if you have questions or concerns.
What Can You Do When Problems Arise?
If you have developed an allergy or unwanted side effect after taking a medicine or health product that you bought from the Internet, stop taking it immediately and consult your doctor.
HSA would also like to encourage you to partner us in our efforts to combat illegal, counterfeit and substandard health products sold online. You can report any suspicious sale of illegal medicines and health products to HSA at Tel: 6866 3485 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.