A story last Friday on ABC News’s 20/20 featured the topic of counterfeit drugs, their dangers and where they’re being sold. The story was helpful in educating the public about the threat of counterfeit drugs but it really seemed to play along with a misleading narrative, one propagated by the drug companies, that foreign medications are the same as counterfeit drugs. I’ve debunked this nonsense before: affordable and safe medications sold from foreign pharmacies are not the same as counterfeit drugs.
Also, as part of its feature on counterfeits, ABC’s website has a section called “How to Order Prescription Drugs Safely Online” that looks to the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP) for useful consumer information. ASOP is financed and operated by big corporate pharmaceutical interests that oppose personal drug importation from safe online pharmacies. If you have great health insurance that covers all of your medications, or lots of money to cover exceedingly high out of pocket prescription drug costs, then the recommendations of ASOP might work for you because they recommend big U.S. chain pharmacies, such as Walgreens and CVS, which charge the world’s highest prices for medication. Many other Americans actually NEED safe international online pharmacies, which ASOP would call unapproved or even “rogue.”
It its story, ABC investigative journalists tracked down people selling prescription medications on the street, from push carts, even in clothing stores – usually in relatively poor neighborhoods. Eventually those people were arrested, all for the viewing audience to see. According to the federal agents involved, some of the medications seized were counterfeit and people did not have to provide a prescription to buy prescription drugs. The story was very troubling. Indeed, it was a powerful indictment of our society, one in which drug prices are so outrageously high that people, such as undocumented immigrants without health insurance, look to street peddlers to find affordable medication.
ABC also covered what are known as “Storefront” pharmacies, which are located throughout the country, often in strip malls, where people go to buy medications from pharmacies in other countries by mail order. These storefronts usually have titles that include the words “Canada,” or “Canadian,” and “Drugs,” “meds,” “medicine,” “Rx,” etc., which indicate that a person can acquire medicine from Canada. ABC wanted to highlight that the medications ordered at these places often do not come from Canadian pharmacies but from other countries. ABC’s implication is that people are being misled. On the other hand, when watching the show, it appeared that storefront personnel did communicate that the orders would not come from Canada so I’m not clear on what’s going on here. We wrote a piece about online pharmacies related to this issue: “So You Want to Buy Cheap Medicine from an Actual Canadian Pharmacy. Here’s the Deal.”
We do not verify storefronts but we believe that some of them are essentially people and companies that help Americans place prescription drug orders from foreign pharmacies that require a valid prescription. In fact, through ABC’s mystery shopping (meaning purchasing prescription drugs from storefronts) they were required to submit valid prescriptions and did so. A few weeks later the journalists received four medications, two of them brand, Viagra and Zocor, coming from Singapore and the UK, and two generics, tadalafil (the brand version known as Cialis) and finasteride (the brand version known as Propecia), both Indian drug products.
The story made it seem as if the two generics were either substandard or counterfeit, as it was noted they contained “impurities” or “unknown ingredients”. What ABC News did not communicate is that the so-called “impurities” or “unknown ingredients” might be acceptable inactive ingredients, excipients, etc., just different from those in the brand versions sold in the U.S. This is normal: generic drugs in the U.S. often have different inactive ingredients from their brand name counterparts. When the Indian generics were chemically tested, ABC showed the results as “fail” but didn’t tell you that generics sold in U.S. pharmacies would likely have failed as well if given that same test because they are not the exact same as the brand in terms of inactive ingredients.
Also, when ABC reported that most of the medicines did not meet FDA standards, it didn’t explain that simply having a label designed for a different country automatically means it does not meet FDA standards, regardless of the medication’s actual safety. In short, foreign sourced medications are often safe and effective products, approved for sale in the countries from which they are dispensed – but not counterfeit or substandard.
It’s important to note that the generics received by the journalists came from India, and, as we’ve written about before, India does have more problems with low quality and counterfeit drugs than in the U.S. or other rich countries. At the same time, India is the largest source of generic medications, exporting across the globe to wealthy, middle income and poor countries. In fact, 40% of generics sold in U.S. pharmacies are from India. It’s well known that the top Indian drug companies excel at making high quality, safe and effective prescription medications, but even among them problems exist, too.
On a closing note about ABC’s coverage of counterfeit drugs, I encourage our readers to look at the consumer comments section on ABC’s website. People don’t believe the big drug company propaganda, or even our trusted regulatory authorities like the FDA. That bothers me because the FDA is right that there are rogue pharmacy operators out there, often online, but they’re wrong not to acknowledge the relative safety and public health benefits of safe international online pharmacies. Hopefully ABC will really investigate…