Assessing Website Pharmacy Drug Quality: Safer than You Think?

PLoS ONE 5(8): e12199, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0012199

8 Pages Posted: 19 Oct 2013

See all articles by Roger Bate

Roger Bate

American Enterprise Institute (AEI)

Kimberly Hess

Africa Fighting Malaria (US)

Date Written: August 13, 2010


Background: Internet-sourced drugs are often considered suspect. The World Health Organization reports that drugs from websites that conceal their physical address are counterfeit in over 50 percent of cases; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) works with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) to regularly update a list of websites likely to sell drugs that are illegal or of questionable quality.

Methods and Findings: This study examines drug purchasing over the Internet, by comparing the sales of five popular drugs from a selection of websites stratified by NABP or other ratings. The drugs were assessed for price, conditions of purchase, and basic quality. Prices and conditions of purchase varied widely. Some websites advertised single pills while others only permitted the purchase of large quantities. Not all websites delivered the exact drugs ordered, some delivered no drugs at all; many websites shipped from multiple international locations, and from locations that were different from those advertised on the websites. All drug samples were tested against approved U.S. brand formulations using Raman spectrometry. Many (17) websites substituted drugs, often in different formulations from the brands requested. These drugs, some of which were probably generics or perhaps non-bioequivalent copy versions, could not be assessed accurately. Of those drugs that could be assessed, none failed from “approved”, “legally compliant” or “not recommended” websites (0 out of 86), whereas 8.6% (3 out of 35) failed from “highly not recommended” and unidentifiable websites.

Conclusions: Of those drugs that could be assessed, all except Viagra® passed spectrometry testing. Of those that failed, few could be identified either by a country of manufacture listed on the packaging, or by the physical location of the website pharmacy. If confirmed by future studies on other drug samples, then U.S. consumers should be able to reduce their risk by relying on credentialing agencies recommended lists and by using common sense when examining packaging and pills.

Suggested Citation

Bate, Roger and Hess, Kimberly, Assessing Website Pharmacy Drug Quality: Safer than You Think? (August 13, 2010). PLoS ONE 5(8): e12199, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0012199, Available at SSRN:

Roger Bate (Contact Author)

American Enterprise Institute (AEI) ( email )

1150 17th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20036
United States

Kimberly Hess

Africa Fighting Malaria (US) ( email )

Washington, DC
United States

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