Prescription drugs, including for weight loss, easily bought online

Some online pharmacies are making it too easy to buy prescription-only medicine, potentially putting patients’ lives at risk, reports BBC News.

Over the course of an investigation, journalists for the publication found 20 online pharmacies selling drugs, which should require a medical professional’s approval, without sufficient checks. By submitting false information, they were able to buy over 1,600 prescription-only pills.

In response, regulator the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) has said that further layers of checks are needed, when it comes to selling certain medications online. Of the findings, Thorrun Govind, a pharmacist, health lawyer and former chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said that these discoveries reveal the ‘wild west’ of purchasing medication on the internet.

‘The current guidance basically tells pharmacies to be robust, but do that in your own way, and we know that under this current system, patients have died,’ she says.

Which restricted drugs were purchased in the investigation?

The team selected three drugs, including an anti-anxiety drug, a painkiller and a sleeping medication.

Of the 20 pharmacies, three sold the BBC the anti-anxiety medicine just using answers to an online questionnaire and did not ask for further evidence, while a potentially fatal quantity of the anti-anxiety medication was allowed to be purchased.

Similarly, the painkiller was obtained from nine pharmacies using online forms, while the team were able to buy the sleeping medication from 14 pharmacies.

Evidence of high-risk and potentially addictive medicines, such as benzodiazepines and antidepressants, being sold using online forms, was also found.

Referring to an addictive painkiller, a marketing email even claimed that there was ‘something fabulous’ in their baskets, which should be bought ‘before time runs out’.

Can other drugs be easily bought?

Speaking to members of the public, the BBC also found instances of people who have able to sidestep safety checks to buy medicines from online pharmacies.

One woman who wished to remain anonymous said she purchased a prescription-only weight-loss drug in July by saying falsely in a questionnaire that she was double her real weight. She had to verify her identity by showing her driving licence, but aside from that, didn’t have to provide any actual evidence of her weight. No further checks were requested before sending the drug.

‘After taking it for a few days, I felt really bad – I couldn’t eat, I was exhausted and basically stopped functioning,’ she said. ‘If I’d had to send a picture, or any proof of my weight, I don’t think I would have been prescribed it.’

prescription drugs bought online without rigorous checks risks lives

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Weight-loss drugs, anxiety medication and painkillers can be bought online without sufficiently robust safety checks.

Another young woman, 38, from Cornwall, died in 2020 after developing an addiction to, and subsequently overdosing on, painkillers for her neck pain. She was able to buy a painkiller and a drug for anxiety from several online pharmacies without notifying her GP. The coroner at her inquest confirmed the safety controls checking the drugs’ suitability were inadequate.

Were any other safety measures taken?

The journalists were unable to make purchases at 13 online pharmacies that sold at least one of these medicines without providing proof that they had been prescribed them by a doctor, showing some medical records, or giving permission for the pharmacy to contact their GP for further safety enquiries.

Five of the pharmacies sent follow-up emails with more safety information and contact details, and every pharmacy that sold to the team had a disclaimer encouraging them to notify their GP about the transaction.

Why are regulations so loose?

Licensed online pharmacists are regulated by the GPhC, but with guidance that Govind calls too vague. ‘This has led to such a variation, with some online pharmacies asking for checks like video consultations, while others seem to let you simply click on the drug you want and go forward to pay,’ she explained.

In a statement to the BBC, a spokesperson for the General Pharmaceutical Council said: ‘We have made it clear that medicines liable to abuse, overuse or misuse, such as opioids and sedatives, should not be sold online unless further safeguards have been put in place.’

‘We have taken regulatory action against online pharmacies which fell short of professional standards, including in some cases where ‘high-risk, habit-forming’ medicines were supplied on the basis of an online questionnaire.’

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