Researchers test on-line drug services
TORONTO – After watching their
e-mail boxes become inundated with spam from companies offering
mail-order pharmaceuticals, a group of Toronto-based researchers decided to see whether the
products would actually arrive if ordered. The answer was yes, and no.
Out of 27 different products ordered, only nine arrived – a 33% success
rate. On the bright side, they were only billed for the ones that were
Alejandro Jadad, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto
and a founder of the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation at Toronto’s
University Health Network, along with research fellow Peter Gernburd,
were able to purchase products that claimed to be brand-name erectile
dysfunction medications, anti-anxiety drugs and obesity supplements.
The centre is now having the substances tested by a lab to see if what
was advertised was actually delivered – the right drug, in the right
dose, and the purity of the product.
“These could be fake,” Jadad told CBC News. “These could be real. These
could be adulterated. We don’t know,” Jadad said of the products he and
Gernburd managed to purchase. “So, it’s ‘User beware’, big time here.”
Jadad warned the on-line drug business is a shady one. An address used
to purchase medication one week can be a dead-end the next, leaving
buyers with no recourse if the drugs turn out to be bogus or past their
“The message really is not, ‘Oh, you’re going to get it.’ The message is
you’re going to get things from places that you don’t know, that are not
responsible, that disappear, and that are breaking the law. So be very
Jadad’s study was recently published in the journal “Public Library of
For its part, Health Canada pointed to cautions posted on the
department’s website, where the public is warned that people put their
health at serious risk when they buy drugs online.
“You have no way of knowing where these companies are located, where
they get their drugs, what is in their drugs, or how to reach them if
there is a problem,” the department says in a fact sheet posted on its
“If you order from these sites, you may get counterfeit drugs with no
active ingredients, drugs with the wrong ingredients, drugs with
dangerous additives, or drugs past their expiry date. Even if these
drugs do not harm you directly or immediately, your condition may get
worse without effective treatment.”
Jadad was inspired to explore the business of spam-generated drug sales
because of the volume of the unwanted e-mail he was getting himself.
A check of the medical literature produced little on the subject. So he
and Gernburd set up three e-mail accounts and monitored the number and
types of spam messages they received.
In one month – November 2006 – the accounts received 4,153 messages that
qualified as spam, 82 percent of the total e-mail traffic.
Health-related spam made up 32 percent of the total.
As far as the researchers could tell, most was from abroad – the United
States, China and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Only 58 percent of
the active links in the spam e-mails were still viable a week later and
only a quarter of the links still worked at the end of the month.
Jadad’s wife had secured a special credit card with a low credit limit
and Jadad and Gernburd tried to order 27 items using it.
Only nine orders went through. Five were for prescription drugs
(erectile dysfunction drugs and anti-anxiety medications) and four were
for natural health products (weight management and penile enlargement).
The only charges made against the credit card were for items that were
actually delivered, Jadad said. But whether the products are the real
thing remains to be seen.
He wouldn’t say if the drugs were expired or more expensive than they
would have been in a local pharmacy, saying that analysis will be in a
future installment of this work.
While some might worry that this study would actually give people
confidence they can buy drugs from spammers, Jadad said it’s important
to know what’s going on in this netherworld, because people clearly are
accessing prescription drugs this way.
“The fact at the end of the day is ... there are enough people who are
willing to look at those messages and consider the products and make an
order. And that is what keeps this going,” said Jadad.
“If people didn’t respond, we wouldn’t have spam. And the fact that spam
is growing so much is a reflection of the fact that the spammers are
making a lot of money out of it.”