Is your erection droopy or your tummy flabby? Thank goodness for the internet. Phentermine is “the best weight-loss diet medication ever”, according to the websites that sell it, while Viagra can be posted to you without a prescription. But the death of 21-year-old Eloise Aimee Parry last week from “diet pills” shows the risk of buying tablets over the internet. Her pills contained 2,4-Dinitrophenol, a chemical that Neal Patel, a pharmacist and head of corporate communications at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), describes as “a pesticide that should never cross the lips of any person”.
A study by the European Alliance for Access to Safe Medicines reported that 62% of prescription products bought online were fake, substandard or unapproved. A survey in GP magazine reported that one in four GPs had treated patients for adverse reactions to medicines bought online. When the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) recently seized a consignment of illegal “smart drugs”, it included sunifiram, a drug to improve mental functioning that had not been tested on humans. This doesn’t, however, stop sites selling it.
Pfizer, the MHRA and others found in a survey that 15% of British adults had bought a prescription drug without a prescription. The most popular purchases were for weight loss, hair loss and erectile problems. The RPS says that Prozac, Valium and Ritalin are also favourites. Antibiotics are increasingly bought online, potentially promoting antibiotic resistance. It is illegal for websites based in the UK to sell these drugs online if you don’t provide a prescription from your doctor, although some sites offer online consultations. The MHRA monitors sites that sell prescription drugs, and if based in the UK, they must be registered pharmacies. If they are not, they can be prosecuted.
So should we stick to the local chemist?
Patel says that unless you use websites that are registered pharmacies (usually with bricks-and-mortar premises too), with a phone number so you can speak to a pharmacist, and ones that ask for a prescription, then you are gambling with your health. It may be tempting to circumvent the prescription pad, but this will generally mean using overseas-based pharmacies with less regulation on the quality of ingredients.
There is no magic pill to lose weight and, according to the RPS, the only weight-loss drug used in the UK is orlistat, which should only be used when prescribed by a doctor, alongside a strict diet. Valium, meanwhile, is a prescription-only drug because it is addictive. Before you self-prescribe anything, you should know that even doctors are strongly discouraged from doing so by the General Medical Council, on the grounds that an objective person should make a better prescribing decision.