Search engines continue to advertise rogue online pharmacies

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 27 August 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3457
  1. Nayanah Siva
  1. 1London

    The United States based search engines Yahoo! and Bing (Microsoft’s search engine) are continuing to run advertisements for rogue online pharmacies that sell counterfeit, adulterated, or unapproved prescription drugs despite federal laws restricting advertising of drugs online.

    A report published on 4 August by the companies KnujOn, a security firm, and LegitScript, an online pharmacy verification company—both of which have been endorsed by the US National Association of Boards of Pharmacy―investigated online pharmacies that were advertised on Bing and in advertisements sponsored by Microsoft (

    The researchers found that online advertisements on Bing permitted the sale of prescription drugs without a valid prescription and of illegally sourced and unregulated drugs. Of the 69 internet pharmacies in their analysis sponsored by Bing, 62 (90%) were operating illegally, they said.

    They then focused on a sample of 10 Microsoft sponsored advertisers that they said are representative. The report says: “None [of the 10 advertisers] required a valid prescription; we actually placed orders with two of the ten advertisers, and received drugs without a prescription in both cases. We submitted one of the drug packages for testing, the drugs were counterfeit.”

    But Carolyn Miller of Microsoft’s advertising centre, who commented on the report in a Microsoft blog, disagrees with the figures quoted ( She wrote: “Our internal teams are continuing to investigate how these advertisers sidestepped the policy. We do not believe the violation percentage was truly 90% as Legitscript claims and believe it is substantially lower than this number.”

    The report emphasises that the 10 advertisers were not just in minor violation of pharmacy law. “Rather, they are wholly fraudulent websites run, in most cases, by criminal networks,” says the report. “In short, these ‘internet pharmacies’ are neither pharmacies at all, nor run by pharmacists: they are simply online street corners run by drug dealers.”

    A similar report by KnujOn and LegitScript published on 17 August found that 82% of all the prescription drug and online pharmacy advertisements sponsored by Yahoo! that the study reviewed led to online pharmacies that permitted the purchase of prescription drugs without a valid prescription (

    “We attempted to purchase drugs without a prescription from two websites; in both cases, we received the drugs, one of which is habit-forming, without a valid prescription,” says the report.

    New legislation was passed in the US in April to curb the sale and distribution of online prescription drugs without a valid prescription after the death of 18 year old Ryan Haight in 2001. He died from an unintentional overdose of narcotics, which included Vicodin that had been bought in this way.

    Many search engines are now in breach of the Ryan Haight Act, as many advertisers have placed advertisements under the name of a licensed pharmacy but that link to illegal internet pharmacies operating overseas. “These problems are neither occasional nor recent,” says KnujOn and LegitScript’s Yahoo! report.

    Ms Miller said in her blog: “We’re also looking at this online pharmacy issue to see what more we can do with working with the industry, government officials and appropriate authorities from law enforcement, similar to the other work we do to fight fraud online.”

    A spokesperson for Google said that the company does take down advertisements that breach its advertising policies.

    In a statement issued to the BMJ, Yahoo! said that the company “has strict guidelines and policies in place for all search advertising, including the display of [advertisements] from online pharmacies in the Yahoo! advertising network. As this report illustrates, the online pharmacy marketplace is challenging to police, however, we take swift action when we become aware of violators, and we have a number of safeguards in place to protect our advertisers and users.” This includes “rigorous” verification of online pharmacies, it says.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3457