THE INTERNET is often a source for goods with prices lower than brick-and-mortar shops. But while buying books or clothes online can save money, when it comes to medication, consumers should shop only on legal websites, as otherwise they may be putting their health at risk, experts say.

Medicine sold illegally online may lack the necessary active ingredients or contain some additives that are harmful to one’s health. The sale of counterfeit drugs has been increasing in Europe, and Slovakia is no exception. A recent analysis by the State Institute for Drug Control (ŠÚKL) looked at several samples of pills offered illegally via the internet. It focused on medications that are most commonly offered online for treatment of erectile dysfunction. All the tested pills failed to meet the requirements of the originals and the ŠÚKL sent the results of the analyses to the police.

The ŠÚKL tested counterfeit versions of Viagra, Levitra and Cialis. The original pills differed from the fakes in their appearance and in the packaging. Laboratory tests showed that fake pills marked as Viagra contained no traces of the active ingredient. Pills marked as Levitra and Cialis contained a different active substance than the original pills. The institute also points out on its website that as these pills are sold only on the basis of a prescription, their sale online is illegal.

“Mostly pills marked by these brands are illegally offered on various anonymous websites,” the institute writes on its website. “The guarantee of safety and the effectiveness of medicine from such websites is not warranted.”

The ŠÚKL explains that only a properly registered brick-and-mortar pharmacy can sell pills online, and it can offer online only over-the-counter medication. The online sale of prescription drugs is prohibited in Slovakia. People can check the list of official online sellers on the ŠÚKL’s website, as pharmacies are obliged to announce that they offer medicine online.

Legally-operating online pharmacies and retailers will also be marked with a common logo introduced by the European Commission. After clicking on it, shoppers in Slovakia will be re-directed to the ŠÚKL, where they can check the internet seller. The EC adopted this measure on June 24 and member countries have one year to implement it.

Big business

Counterfeit drugs have been flooding European markets for years, with the internet being the main distribution channel. Profits from the sale of fake medicine exceed revenues from the sale of illegal drugs. The most popular varieties are fakes of original medication for treatment of urological and neurological diseases, hormones and cancer.

The Slovak Police, drug manufacturers and the ŠÚKL are cooperating in uncovering the illegal sale of counterfeit medicine. Slovakia was one of 111 countries which joined Operation Pangea VII, combating the sale of illegal medicine online. The operation took place during May 13-20, and Slovakia’s National Criminal Agency (NAKA) provided Interpol with information about websites operated by Slovak subjects in Slovakia and uncovered pharmaceutical criminality, the TASR newswire wrote.

“Within one of the anti-drug operations during a home search in Bratislava, NAKA police officers uncovered thousands of packages of unregistered medicine,” Michal Slivka, the spokesman of the Police Corps presidium, told TASR. Anabolic steroids and medication for treatment of erectile dysfunction and cardio-vascular diseases were particularly prevalent.

Globally, the international operation led to the launch of 1,235 investigations and the closure of 10,600 websites. Slovakia’s NAKA contributed information about 19 websites operating in Slovakia.