Social Media and COVID-19 Boost Online Sales of Counterfeit Drugs, Study Finds – Stories

The sale of counterfeit drugs has long been a problem around the world, starting in low-income countries and spreading to wealthier countries, such as the United States, thanks to the rise of online pharmacies. Now, with the emerging prevalence of drug availability on social media and an increase in demand due to COVID-19, a new study reveals that the threat of illegal drug sales through online sources is escalating.

The result of a collaboration between Butler University and Michigan State University, the survey assessed the rate of use of Internet platforms by American participants to purchase prescription drugs, as well as their perceptions of the risks. and their motivations for doing so. Almost 18% of those surveyed said they bought drugs online, the main reasons being to get “legitimate drugs” or “a good deal”.

In a list of 20 specific platforms, including online pharmacies, online retailers, social media platforms, and instant messaging services, even those participants considered the least trustworthy for purchasing drugs (Kik and TikTok) generally tended to be considered safe. Online pharmacies and Amazon were considered the safest. Wickr was the most widely used platform to buy sedatives, stimulants, and narcotic drugs, followed by Tumblr, QQ, Pinterest, eBay, Kik, Alibaba, Weibo, and WeChat.

John Hertig, Butler University
Dr John Hertig

“Particularly recently, people have been ordering everything online, from toilet paper to Oreos and now to prescription drugs,” says Dr. John Hertig, associate professor of pharmacy practice at Butler and principal investigator for the study. “When more people are comfortable going online, there are more opportunities for illegal actors to take advantage of consumers. ”

Given previous findings that nearly 96% of websites selling prescription drugs operate illegally and that half of the products sold on these platforms are counterfeit, Americans are clearly overconfident in their ability to obtain drugs safely. Internet security.

Hertig explains that counterfeit drugs either don’t work at all, don’t work as well as they should, or contain toxic chemicals like brick dust, chalk, rat poison, or ethylene glycol ( which is commonly used in antifreeze). But even when online platforms sell genuine drugs, the ease of access creates the potential for harm: nearly 55% of survey respondents had purchased narcotics online, 52% had purchased stimulants, and about 30% had purchased. sedatives.

“We are looking at drugs that have high addictive properties that are known to be public health concerns,” Hertig said. “If you put this in the context of the opioid epidemic, it represents a major gap in our patient safety guarantees. Online, people can bypass a doctor’s visit and diagnosis, pharmacist prescription verification and advice, and government regulatory bodies that make sure the drug you’re getting is approved. People are convinced that what they are getting is real, even though they have no way of knowing it.

The pandemic has pushed more people to online platforms, with 36% of participants purchasing (possibly fake) drugs or vaccines linked to COVID-19. As a general rule, the higher the risk perceived by the consumer of online platforms, the less likely they are to purchase drugs using these channels. This was not the case for COVID-19 products.

“Researchers had already seen this perfect storm approaching,” says Hertig. “We have a population that uses the Internet for everything, and now they are reaching an age where they are more and more consumers of health care. Then, in 2020, that perfect storm that we predicted swooped down on us because of the pandemic, where fear of the virus supplanted the perceived risk of selling drugs on the web, and many of us were confined to us. The increase in the number of people looking for drugs online has created an exponential problem. “

Hertig also points out that all sources included in the survey are major websites, social media platforms, or messaging services open to anyone on the web, not part of the Dark or Gray Web. He says many consumers who buy drugs online do so through visual platforms like Instagram, especially so that they can see the product for themselves and feel like they can verify that it is genuine. But that would be tricky even for professionals: one of Hertig’s previous studies found that only half of pharmacists could correctly identify an illegal online pharmacy.

So what is the solution ? Hertig says it starts with education.

“As a society, and we as the healthcare community, must continue to educate our consumers about the risk of social media as a mechanism for obtaining prescription drugs,” he says. “We also need to educate ourselves, within the healthcare community, that this is happening here in the United States every day – it’s not just a problem in low-income countries. “

Social media, search engines and e-commerce platforms also need to do more to take responsibility for what is illegally distributed on their platforms.

“There needs to be a better balance between protecting internet freedom while making sure that we regulate it properly, especially when it comes to public health and patient safety,” Hertig said.

Other authors of the article included Dr Charlotte Moureaud, who did part of a drug safety fellowship at Butler and worked on that research alongside Hertig. Researchers Yao Dong, Iago S. Muraro, and Dr. Saleem Alhabash were part of the Michigan State team.

Media contact:
Katie Grieze
Senior Content Manager

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David A. Albanese