Northern Ireland

Free movement of prescription drugs hampers regulation

Pills, Eyewire
Image caption There is growing evidence that people buy prescription drugs online because it is convenient

John Chave, Secretary General with the Pharmaceutical Group for the European Union explains some of the problems in trying to regulate and prevent the sale of medicines on the internet.

What you need to recognise is that these organisations who are selling medicines are acting entirely outside the law.

As a general principle any internet pharmacy that does not require a prescription is acting illegally and may in fact be a mafia-type criminal enterprise, not only dealing with genuine drugs, but also counterfeit medicines as well.

It is very difficult for the British government to control these things.

In the Irish Republic where buying prescription medicine online is illegal, unlike the UK where it is legal to buy prescription medicines online, there is still a significant problem with people going online and purchasing medicines entirely outside the law.

Awareness

If you can get over to Russia and Asia and actually enforce the local laws, assuming that there are local laws in place, then very often these people will just move on and change the website address a little and pop up again in what can be simply a matter of days.

We have a situation now where one in seven people in the UK are buying medicines online.

One in four GPs report having treated people for adverse drug reactions who bought medicines online.

There's been a huge growth in this with the unrolling of high speed internet.

American researchers have tracked prescription medicine abuse and prescription medicine misuse to the development of fast access internet across the US, so it is very, very difficult.

Campaign

There is a 50% chance that you will get a counterfeit medicine from some online prescription websites.

There was a case very similar to the Mathew Davidson case, just earlier in the year in London where a paramedic who you might have expected to understand the risks a little bit better, died from accidental overdose of sleeping pills which she had bought on the internet.

Research suggests that some people are looking for lifestyle medicines, weight loss is a big category, along with sexual dysfunction.

But there is growing evidence that people do it simply because it is convenient.

They are used to buying things over the internet.

We all live busy stressful lives these days and we don't have time to take time off work to get a doctors appointment so convenience is actually a big factor in this.

If you look at the statistics, customs are seizing more and more every year.

Seizures

That might in part be explained by the greater volume of people trying to get drugs into the country, but it is unrealistic to expect customs officers to detect every single packet that comes through.

Customs reckon between five to 10 % of illegal medicines sent through the post are picked up at customs level.

Another thing the European Union is looking at is putting a safety feature on medicine packaging.

I suppose you could extend that to the packaging that goes through customs.

What would happen is the customs officer would scan it and that would go to a database and you would be able to match a number on the database with the pack and if the numbers match you can be more or less 100% confident that this is a genuine package.

That's going to take a number of years to roll out.

In our free society it is actually quite difficult to prevent people going online and buying these things even if people are aware of the risks.