There are plenty of reasons why Australians are jumping online to buy their drugs. However, the increasing number of dot-com drug purchases going wrong has prompted health experts to warn that buying medicines and supplements from the internet is far more risky than doing the weekly grocery shop or picking up a bargain pair of shoes online. One click of your mouse could lead you unknowingly into serious health problems, trouble with the law or simply being ripped off. While research by NPS MedicineWise suggests that only about 1 per cent of Australians over the age of 50 have bought medicine online, the NPS warns this trend is only going to grow. “It’s certainly not going away, so it’s important that people know the risks involved so they can make the right choices,” NPS MedicineWise clinical adviser Dr Philippa Binns says.
The online marketplace
While there are reputable Australian web retailers, the vast majority of online pharmaceutical sites are overseas-based and the marketplace is full of bogus and illegal operations. Jump online, type in “online pharmacy” and within a couple of clicks you can buy Viagra, DIY cosmetic surgery kits with syringes, hormone replacement therapy, Prozac, Valium, powerful painkillers, antibiotics, high-potency slimming powders, even fertility drugs – all from professional-looking sites and without a doctor’s prescriptions or any medical questions being asked.
“That’s [when it gets] really unsafe,” Binns says. “There are no guarantees that you’ll get what you’re paying for and just as importantly, the reason why many drugs are prescription-only is they can have serious side effects. You really need the knowledge of a health professional,” Binns explains, adding that even “all-natural” and herbal supplements can be risky if taken unsupervised.
Weight loss, erectile dysfunction and baldness products are the most popular items bought online, but even if they purport to be all-natural, they can still cause health problems or contain dangerous chemicals. This is backed by an investigation by the US Food and Drug Administration which revealed that 72 popular weight loss products available online contained undeclared drugs and chemicals linked to suicide, stroke and even sudden death.
What can go wrong
One case in Adelaide saw a woman admitted to hospital for psychosisbecause of a slimming supplement. It was found to contain the drug sibutramine, a common ingredient in unregulated weight loss supplements, which was banned in Australia because it can cause heart problems.
In another case, a 30-year-old Victorian woman was left disfigured when her experiment with a dermal filler bought online to pump up her lips went horribly wrong. The result was grotesquely ballooned lips and several large abscesses on her face.
Health issues aside, buying online can land you in court as obtaining prescription medications without a script is illegal.
Many weight loss powders and medications available overseas have ingredients that are illegal in Australia, according to national watchdog the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). They can also be fake, too strong or weak or made in backyard operations.
A TGA spokesperson says buying from a site that you haven’t established as legitimate is “lunatic behaviour”. The agency is constantly intercepting dangerous medications and supplements that come into Australia by post, and it regularly updates its warnings list.