As U.S. Drug Prices Soar, Americans Resort To Risky Foreign Online Pharmacies

On Thursday, the FDA announced that it had shuttered over 1,600 online pharmacies for selling illegal or counterfeit medication. On the same day, a new Maine law went into effect allowing residents to purchase drugs imported from Canada.

Buying drugs online or buying them from other countries isn’t necessarily safe. Federal regulators warn that Americans buy these products at their own risk.

“Medicine bought from foreign sources, such as from Internet sellers, from businesses that offer to buy foreign medicine for you, or during trips outside the United States, may not be safe or effective,” an FDA spokesman said in an email to NPR. “These medicines are illegal and may present health risks, and FDA cannot ensure the safety, efficacy and quality of medicine from these sources. FDA cannot help consumers who have problems with medicine obtained from outside U.S. regulation and oversight.”

But Americans are turning to these alternative methods of obtaining prescription medication because they can’t afford the drugs they need otherwise. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 25 million Americans didn’t take prescribed medication in 2009 due to the high U.S. drug costs, and the Commonwealth Fund found that 48 million American adults didn’t fill their prescription because of high drug costs in 2010. That actually ends up raising national health care costs, since over $290 billion of wasteful annual health care spending is caused by Americans not complying with drug treatment regimens.


By contrast, drugs purchased online from other countries can cost anywhere between 80 percent and 90 percent less than those sold in U.S. brick and mortar pharmacies and American online retailers. For instance, the brand name version of the common cholesterol drug Lipitor costs anywhere from $462 to $535 in the U.S. as compared to $86 in the international online market.

Barring the sorts of negotiated price controls over prescription drugs that exist in countries like Canada, Americans may keep resorting to online foreign sources for their brand name drug needs. Alternatively, consumers could purchase generic versions of prescription drugs (the generic for Lipitor costs about $10 through U.S. Internet pharmacies) — but depending on what they’re treating, consumers may have to wait for over a decade for a brand name drug’s patent to lapse before generic drug makers can offer their own version.