Buying medicines online

This section provides advice on the risks of buying medicines over the Internet.

Consumer using laptop

Medicines on the Internet

The established way to obtain medicines is from a pharmacist. Increasingly, however, purchases are being made over the internet.

If you are thinking about buying what may be a Prescription Only Medicine, we strongly urge you to consult your doctor, rather than purchase the medicine direct from an internet supplier without a prescription.

It is important to take great care when buying medicines over the internet, particularly if the medicine concerned would normally only be available from your high street pharmacy.

If you you buy Prescription Only Medicines over the internet:

  • they may not have been prescribed by a healthcare professional
  • there may not be checks and controls on the quality and effectiveness of medicines supplied
  • there may be no legal recourse in the event of a problem.

In the UK, medicines can be supplied in a number of ways. Some can be bought at supermarkets and convenience stores, some can only be bought in a pharmacy, where advice on their use can be given and some can only be supplied against a prescription, written by a qualified healthcare professional - most often, your doctor.  All medicines have risk and well as benefits. With prescription only medicines, a doctor needs to be involved to assess and manage those risk and benefits.

Where can I find out if a medicine is a Prescription Only Medicine?

The best way is to check with your retail pharmacist.

Should I buy medicines over the Internet?

In recent years, there has been an explosion of websites offering medicines for sale via the internet. Many of these websites originate from outside the UK and are therefore not regulated by UK authorities. Buying Prescription Only Medicines from unauthorised sources significantly increases the risk of getting substandard/fake medicines.

People who acquire medicines without the benefit of a consultation with an appropriate healthcare professional risk being supplied with medicines that are not safe or not suitable for them to use.

Prescription Only Medicines should only be taken in consultation with a healthcare professional. This is particularly important when you are already taking other medicines at the same time, because interactions between medicines may cause side effects.

In addition any medicines, whether prescription only or not, if purchased over the internet may not meet UK regulatory and quality standards. They may be past their ‘sell-by date’ in which case their effectiveness will be reduced.

Fake medicine leaflet coverDownload the Fake Medicine information leaflet for more information on the risks of buying medicines online and who to go to for further advice.

If purchases are made over the internet, and as is often the case, sourced from outside the UK, patients have no legal or other recourse if the products are not effective or prove to be harmful.

The General Pharmaceutical Council has introduced a new logo which will be seen on the front page of participating online pharmacy sites. This will help people identify whether a website offering to sell medicines or provide other pharmacy services is connected to a registered pharmacy. By clicking on the logo, visitors are linked to a page on the GPhC website where they can make checks to ensure the site is a registered pharmacy.

Further information on the logo and its use can be found on the website of the General Pharmaceutical Council (external link).

Internet pharmacy is an area of rapid growth and it is recognised that the increased provision of internet pharmacy services undoubtedly improves patient access and choice of pharmacy services, the nature of the world wide web is such that some medicines are now readily available from online suppliers who have no professional qualifications or healthcare expertise. The policy of the RPSGB is that the public benefit from the opportunity for advice from a pharmacist when they have a medicine supplied.

The General Pharmaceutical Council’s current conditions for use of the internet logo require that pharmacy websites display:

  • the name of the owner of the business
  • the address of the pharmacy at which the business is conducted
  • the name of the superintendent pharmacist where applicable
  • details of how to confirm the registration status of the pharmacy and pharmacist.

Investigation into SPAM emails promotion Prescription Only Medicines

In March 2011 a report was launched that revealed the findings of a unique investigation into the danger to unsuspecting members of the public of bypassing the healthcare system and falling for email offers advertising Prescription Only Medicines.

The findings showed that SPAM emails promoting Prescription Only Medicines not only encourages a culture of self-diagnosis and self-medication for conditions that should be checked by a doctor, but also puts people’s health and potentially lives at risk.

The investigation revealed a multitude of dangers:

Health – products containing banned, untested, or undeclared ingredients, products containing too much or too little active ingredient, with no information supplied on dosage or side effects, together Real Danger Campaign: Mouse logo with backgroundwith allowing Prescription Only Medicines to be sold without a proper consultation or prescription provided.

Financial – potential for credit card cloning and other fraudulent activities, as well as products being sold at a much higher price than they would cost from a high street pharmacy.

Personal – viruses were contracted from spam emails and the website they advertised, infecting PCs in an attempt to copy contact details for further ‘spamming’.

You’ve Got Life – Threatening Email: An investigation by Pfizer, MHRA & PartnersPDF file (opens in new window) (1878Kb)

Operation Pangea

The aim of the operation:

  • To tackle the demand for medicines online by raising public awareness
  • Tackling the supply through targeting the illegal online sale of medicines.

In June 2013 the MHRA announced that it had seized a record £12.2 million of counterfeit and unlicensed medicines in the UK. This was part of a week-long international crackdown on the illegal internet trade of medicines that seized over £26.8 million globally.

The crackdown – called Operation Pangea VI - was conducted between 18 June and 25 June 2013 and resulted in 58 people being arrested worldwide. This operation has also resulted in 9,610 illegal online websites that were selling counterfeit and unlicensed medicines being closed down or suspended through domain name or payment facility removal.

Coordinated by INTERPOL and carried out by 99 countries across the globe, the operation targeted the three main elements misused in the illegal website trade – the internet infrastructure, the electronic payment system and the mail delivery service.

Internationally, results showed that more than 522,000 packages were inspected by regulators and customs officials resulting in the seizure of over £9.9 million doses of unlicensed and counterfeit medicines worth approximately £26.8 million.

Press release: MHRA nets UK record £12.2 million haul of counterfeit and unlicensed medicines

Warnings over 'unsafe' fake diet pills sold online (link to BBC Newsbeat website)

Buying medicines online: video*

The MHRA is involved in campaigns to highlight the risks of buying medicines online. Watch this video to find out more.

 

*This film is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Find out what happened to John at the end of the investigation

For more information about this campaign go to the RealDanger website (external link)

Reporting counterfeit medicines

If you have any concerns or information that may assist us in tracking down those responsible for counterfeit medicines and devices you can e-ail the Enforcement Group at counterfeit@mhra.gsi.gov.uk or you can ring our 24-hour dedicated hotline on 020 3080 6701 or you can write to us at:

Counterfeits
Case Referral Centre
MHRA
5th Floor
151 Buckingham Palace Road
Victoria
London
SW1W 9SZ

What are we doing about it?

The MHRA Enforcement Team continually monitors internet sites, especially those known to be selling Prescription Only Medicines. Spot checks are made to see if the Internet sites selling prescription only medicines are based in the UK. If so, we are then able to take action and a number of prosecutions have taken place. We refer overseas sites to the appropriate regulatory body in that country.

In association with the UK government and with other regulatory and health bodies, we are working to ensure that there is proper guidance to support the safe purchase of medicines over the Internet. We are playing a key role in a Department of Health working party on the sale and supply of medicines in the UK which will determine the legal and proper way to buy medicines over the Internet.

The above moves are intended to reconcile the increasing trend towards electronic commerce, including the growth of e-pharmacies supplying prescription only medicines, with the protection of patient safety and public health.

Find out more about MHRA prosecutions

Internet days of action

The MHRA has conducted three internet days of action which have resulted in coordinated activity against those websites most active in the UK suspected of breaches of medicine regulation, including counterfeit medicines.

During this initiative, the Agency has been accompanied by observers from European counterparts and the media in an effort to raise awareness of the increased risk in obtaining medicines from unlicensed websites operated by unqualified individuals supplying sub-standard products illegally.


Page last modified: 27 June 2013