Veterinarians, FDA and Pharmacists Warn Consumers about Buying Drugs Online

In April several groups stepped up efforts to educate consumers about the dangers of Internet pharmacies that may operate without licenses and sell counterfeit, unregulated drugs to an increasing number of consumers.

On April 13, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered search engines to remove links to online pharmacies and, over the last few months, it has partnered with seven states, including Virginia, to educate consumers about the perils of ordering drugs online through its “Looks Can Be Deceiving Campaign.” The California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) issued an advisory to pet owners April 13, 2004, about the dangers of online drug purchases and provided a tip sheet. And in Canada, a complaint was filed April 2 with the Manitoba Regulatory Board because an online pharmacy allegedly sold generic forms of branded prescription drugs without a license, according to reports.

“Internet pharmacies stand the relationship of dispensing on end,” said Gregory Dennis, JD, immediate past-president of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association. “Clients are meeting with Internet pharmacists and going to professionals as the last part of the sequence instead of the first.”

To stem the tide of clients ordering online, Dennis advises veterinarians to talk with clients about how they intend to fill scripts and to personally field all calls from pharmacies requesting scripts instead of delegating the responsibility to veterinary staff.

Veterinarians who receive requests to fill prescriptions for animals they haven’t examined in a reasonable time, should refuse to issue scripts, Dennis said. Likewise, a veterinarian who does not recognize a company name should ask if the company is registered with the state pharmacy board, get the registration number and verify it with the state. All Internet pharmacies must be registered with state boards in order to ship medications into the state, he said. 

In addition to registering with the state, Internet pharmacies can be certified by the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS), a program created by regulatory agencies in 1999. And the American Association of Veterinary State Boards recently partnered with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy to develop a veterinary equivalent to the VIPPS certification system.

Meanwhile, the CVMA suggests that veterinarians discuss practical concerns with clients, such as the possibility that shipping and handling can adversely affect drugs that must be kept in controlled environments. 

There are also questions about liability if an animal has an adverse reaction to a drug purchased over the Internet, said Peter Weinstein, DVM, and president of the CVMA. In that situation, “Who would be responsible?” he asked. “We need to educate clients on the importance of getting products sold through ethical channels.” 

Clients use Internet pharmacies most frequently when refilling prescriptions, said Weinstein, who suggested that if veterinarians can determine what a client’s motivation is to shop online they may be able to counter with competitive prices or convenience when possible. 

The FDA has published information about how clients can safely order drugs online.

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