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Americans and others living in America used to see advertisements on Google for low-cost and safe international online pharmacies but now they don’t. That’s because, back in 2010, Google banned all non-U.S. online pharmacies, safe or otherwise, from its advertising platform that targets the United States and its people, a demographic urgently in need of lower drug prices! Why would they do that? Who does that benefit? Who does it hurt?

This week, in our continuing quest to get the truth out and for our elected leaders in Congress to take bold action to protect online access to safe and affordable medication, we’re publishing the next section of our report called Online Pharmacies, Personal Drug Importation, and Public Health

History of Google and Online Pharmacies: Learning the Right Lessons

The GAO report mentioned investigations and prosecutions of companies that provide services to online pharmacies, referred to as “gatekeepers,” as another method of deterring rogue online pharmacies. The most well-known of these investigations led to Google’s $500 million forfeiture in 2011, after the company signed a non-prosecution agreement (NPA) with the U.S. Department of Justice, which found the company allowed certain kinds of dangerous online pharmacies to advertise.[1] The $500 million forfeiture – not a criminal fine or civil monetary penalty – was calculated by adding ad revenues and sales made by Google and, allegedly, “Canadian” online pharmacies, respectively, from the advertising and sale of controlled prescription drugs without a prescription (such as OxyContin, Vicodin, Valium, Adderall, and Xanax), but not advertisements by credentialed international online pharmacies for non-controlled prescription drugs, such a Abilify, Celebrex, Crestor, Lexapro, Lipitor, Plavix, Pradaxa, Seroquel, Singulair, Victoza, and Zoloft.

The GAO report did not mention that under the NPA Google agreed to ban all licensed non-U.S. pharmacies, including Canadian pharmacies that require a prescription and do not sell controlled drugs into the U.S., from advertising on Google’s search marketing programs that target U.S. consumers. Roger Bate, lead author of the BEJEAP report, wrote in a separate article:

“What is most distressing about the Google agreement is that Google’s earlier policy was actually optimal from a health standpoint. All domestic and foreign sites advertising on Google were supposed to be vetted by, an independent credentialing organization. My research team’s sampling of drugs (published in the peer-reviewed literature) found that none of the sites approved by sold poor quality medicines even though they advertised lower prices than U.S. firms, and were all based overseas. But poor enforcement by Google led to advertising from web entities that were not credentialed by, some of which probably sold substandard and counterfeit medicines. Because of this poor oversight, officials concerned with promoting public health were right to challenge Google’s weak enforcement of its policy.”

Reputable Canadian and other international online pharmacies, those that legitimately advertised on Google prior to its policy changes, remain banned from advertising on Google, as well as the other major search engines, due to government pressure, if not coercion. Lawmakers should consider encouraging policies to reverse that ban.

[1] Bate, Roger, “Google’s Ad Freedom Wrongly Curtailed,” September 28, 2011,, see [Last accessed 10/19/2014].

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