Feature Pharmaceuticals

Can anyone stop the illegal sale of medicines online?

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i1317 (Published 07 March 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i1317
  1. Andrew Jack, editor,
  2. firstFT
  1. Financial Times, London, UK
  1. Andrew.jack{at}ft.com

Demand for and supply of unlicensed drugs online continues to grow despite regulators’ constant attempts to crack down on illegal activity, Andrew Jack reports

When the UK medicines regulator announced a fresh success in February in its battle against the illegal sale of medicines, the details revealed a familiar pattern. Charlie and Matthew Knight from Hatfield Peverel in Essex were fined and given suspended prison sentences for the distribution of unlicensed drugs for erectile dysfunction through eBay.1

Almost every month, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) announces raids, prosecutions, or verdicts against people selling products that are banned, counterfeit, substandard, or incorrectly prescribed. Last year it seized a record £15.8m (€20m; $22m) worth of counterfeit and unlicensed medicines during the annual Interpol coordinated week of action, Operation Pangea, alone.2

Intensifying enforcement coupled with growing legislation offer more tools and greater protection than ever for consumers seeking assured quality, correctly prescribed treatments. A recent European law requires logos to certify legitimate online pharmacies.3And new regulations will soon require barcodes to identify and track every single pack of medicine.3

Yet in a constant game of cat and mouse with the authorities, sellers and buyers who seek to bypass such controls can still do so almost as easily as ever. “The model evolved from mail order 15 years ago,” recalls Danny Lee-Frost, the MHRA’s head of operations. “We had great success in cleaning up online sales, which were pretty easy to track down. Individuals would register with their own name and address on an [internet] …

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