It has become one of the hottest and most lucrative sections of the international drug market.
Drug companies on-line marketing themselves as alternatives to drugs meant to enhance people’s sex lives.
According to data tracked by the United States Food and Drug Administration since 2005 the market for sexual therapy drugs has nearly doubled.
And this market is expected to push $6.6 billion a year in US sales by the end of 2012, according to London-based URCH publishing, a worldwide pharmaceutical and healthcare research company.
Research shows 78% of the sales in that sexual therapy market come from drugs to treat male erectile dysfunction.
That’s where Internet drug sales come in. They can be found on-line in a variety of ways. They are companies that claim to offer real drugs at a discount.
“Instead of promoting (a consumer’s) sexual function, they’re actually destroying it (by buying and using many on-line drugs),” said Dr. Lawrence Hakim of the Cleveland Clinic of Florida. “Counterfeit drugs are a major problem that we see today with all sorts of medications especially medications for male sexual function.”
Doctor Hakim knows from experience. He is Chairman of Urology at the Cleveland Clinic in South Florida.
“They’re promoted as being much cheaper and unfortunately they’re often promoted as being safe,” said Dr. Hakim. “And we know that that’s typically not the case.”
Take the website for a product called “Man Up Now”.
The site purports to sell the equivalent of Viagra for male sexual dysfunction.
The “Man Up Now” site lists its United States Office as located in Tampa but when the I-Team went there we discovered the address is a Post Office box at a UPS store on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa.
When the CBS4 I-Team tried to contact the company through e-mail we got no response.
“Unfortunately anybody can go online and order any type of medication,” said Dr. Hakim, “especially medications that increase male sexual function. And (the customers) get those medications without the care of a physician or without getting them from a pharmacy, a licensed pharmacy or (through) FDA approved medications. And that becomes a big problem.”
In fact, late last year the FDA put out an official warning telling consumers to avoid “Man Up Now” because it contains potentially dangerous ingredients.
Even so, it appears Internet sales of “Man Up Now” remain strong.
“It’s a very serious problem,” said Cariny Nunez, public affairs specialist at the FDA’s Florida district office in Doral. “The counterfeit drug can look like the original drug.”
The FDA’s Nunez says the fake pills are so good and appear so real that even experts often have a hard time telling them apart.
“We send them (the drugs) to the lab to make sure what type of ingredient whether or not it is a fake or a brand origination,” said Nunez.
I-Team investigator Stephen Stock asked, “That’s the only way to tell is to send them to a lab?”
“Yes,” said Nunez. “They need to be lab tested.”
In fact, experts warn that in at least half of all internet drug sales, the drugs are either completely fake, not the right strength or a different drug altogether.
“There have been studies made looking at many of these counterfeit drugs,” said Dr. Hakim. “And the studies found that these counterfeit drugs contain chalk or sawdust or other filler products that are certainly dangerous and certainly not going to enhance their sexual performance.”
And it’s not just fake Viagra, Cialis or Levitra.
FDA warnings have recently been issued for fake Tamiflu, fake inflammation drugs, cholesterol reducing pills and weight loss pills.
All of these supposed drugs have been discovered sold through the Internet. Most of the pills are imported to the United States from overseas.
“If their (web)site does not ask for a valid prescription most likely it (the company) is not legitimate,” said the FDA’s Nunez.
The problem is so bad that the FDA, postal inspectors and ICE agents regularly conduct what they call a drug seizure blitz.
One recently conducted in South Florida was code-named Operation Safeguard.
During Operation Safeguard nearly two dozen inspectors seized hundreds of thousands of pills shipped from overseas to the International Mail facility near Miami International Airport.
“They have detected hundreds of packages that contain counterfeited drugs,” said Nunez.
The FDA, US Postal Inspectors and ICE agents (formerly US Customs) have conducted several fake pill blitzes in Chicago and Los Angeles as well as Miami.
Nunez said that the FDA has also set up inspection offices in China, Latin America, Europe and India, all to catch these fake drugs.
Even so, the agents admit that they are only able to stop a small fraction of the huge international fake drug trade.
“I think people need to be aware that this is a very critical issue,” said Dr. Hakim.
Besides male sexual enhancement, experts warn that one of the most popular fake drugs right now are ones marketed to address radiation exposure in the wake of the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.
“They can be very dangerous as well in that some of these agents like amphetamines or herbal agents that they often use in these counterfeit drugs can cause other life threatening issues,” said Dr. Hakim.
“And I try to educate my patients that these counterfeit meds are not necessarily what they think they’re getting they can be very dangerous and that they really need to be careful with any type of medication that they’re taking.”
The FDA gives these simple rules to follow to protect against fake drugs.
First if the website does not have an official seal of the National Board of Pharmacy or a verified international pharmacy practice number beware and don’t buy the product.
Second, the FDA says you should only buy from a registered pharmacy with a legitimate prescription.
Finally, the FDA says that, like anything else, if the price or deal seems too good to be true it likely is and it could cost you in the long run.