Next wave in gray-market US drug sales: pharmacy 'facilitators'

Rogue online pharmacies are going the brick-and-mortar route

The US pharma industry along with organizations like the National Assn. of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) have been fighting illicit online pharmacies for years. These “pharmacies” (some can barely meet the legal requirements of wherever they might be located), mostly offshore, fill prescriptions while shipping products literally from anywhere in the world—including gray-market products priced in other jurisdictions, as well as bogus counterfeits. FDA, the Dept. of Justice and international organizations including Interpol have been shutting down the websites by the thousands, but it’s painfully easy to set up new sites and keep going.

Now, as reported by an investigation by the cable-news network CNBC, the business has taken a new turn: brick-and-mortar stores, called “facilitators,” that are set up to help consumers, especially the elderly, place orders that are then filled by mail. “Shops like these are popping up everywhere, particularly in Florida with its high population of seniors,” reported CNBC, including one it found in central Florida under the sign “Canadian Discount,” in bright red letters.

The CNBC report purchased Pfizer’s Lipitor from both facilitators and from legitimate pharmacies, then had the products tested by Pfizer. Somewhat to CNBC’s chagrin, the products were legitimate Lipitor—just product that had been transshipped from one overseas market into the US, and sold at a significant discount from the US prices. Such gray-market distribution is a well-known attribute of the global pharma industry—it is fully authorized within the European Community, for example—but the risks of buying products that turn out to be bogus are also well documented in the online-pharmacy environment. NABP has sponsored the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practices (VIPPS) program for years to differentiate legitimate online pharmacies from those that are not.

FDA mostly cannot regulate retail pharmacy; the jurisdiction falls to state pharmacy boards, and it’s not clear how strongly they can prohibit the facilitation process. FDA has taken measures to constrain mail deliveries of pharmaceuticals from abroad, but it also allows some of this trade when products are for personal consumption.

Credit to TruTag Technologies, a Honolulu company developing drug-authentication technology, for bringing this to the attention of Pharmaceutical Commerce. The CNBC story ran on the July 4 weekend, not picking up much attention from the business press.