News Roundup

UN warns of dangers of drugs sold on internet

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 11 March 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:603
  1. Jane Burgermeister
  1. Vienna

    The illegal sale over the internet of drugs and medicines without a valid prescription is posing an increasing risk to people's health, the UN drugs watchdog has warned.

    In its annual report the Vienna based International Narcotics Control Board urged governments to do more to tackle the threat posed to people's health by the escalating trade in drugs over the internet. The report said that websites were offering popular drugs, such as sildenafil (Viagra) and tamoxifen, without a valid prescription.

    Other sites offered psychotropic or mood changing substances, such as fluoxetine (Prozac).

    Internet pharmacies often failed to issue warnings about the risks, the board said. For example, methylphenidate hydrochloride (Ritalin)—which is used to treat hyperactivity in children and which has been linked with exacerbated behavioural disturbances in some children—is being advertised by some internet operators as a “mild and harmless stimulant,” the board said. A raid on one US internet pharmacy found that 90% of the drugs being sold by mail order were internationally controlled prescription drugs.

    The board said that people who had turned to the internet to order drugs because it was a comfortable and cheaper method were at risk of becoming addicted to the drugs.

    Authorities are being hampered in their efforts to crack down on unregulated online pharmacies because many countries have not introduced regulations to combat internet crime, the report said.

    The board urged governments to act quickly to close loopholes in international law that allowed internet operators to ply their trade and to enforce existing regulations strictly.

    The report identified Pakistan, Thailand, and India as three countries that supply illicit drugs to customers around the world by mail order.

    The people most likely to use internet pharmacies could be divided into three groups, the report concluded: addicts who consume large quantities of different drugs; former patients who have become addicted in the course of their treatment; and people who want to buy prescription only drugs without going to the doctor.

    The board warned that sales of illicit drugs were being boosted by a “dangerously widespread perception” that the misuse of prescription drugs was less dangerous than the misuse of illegal drugs. It urged governments to tighten laws on the use of drugs.

    Last year, the board condemned a decision by the UK government to reclassify cannabis as a class C drug, putting it on a par with tranquilisers, arguing that a relaxation of existing laws sent out the “wrong signal.”

    However, the board is understood to have dropped its objections to the UK move because it was satisfied that the downgrading of cannabis did not amount to decriminalisation or legalisation.

    More information can be accessed from the board's website at:

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