Brits use rogue websites for prescription medicines

March 28, 2012

#7Brits are unwittingly putting their health at risk by purchasing medicines from rogue* internet sites, according to research out today (27 March 2012).

A study from The Co-operative Pharmacy** has found that over 50 per cent of people who purchase drugs and other health remedies on the internet won’t or don’t know how to check they are using a reputable and regulated pharmacy.

The majority of people do not know how to check the authenticity of a website but almost one in four people admit to have knowingly purchased from overseas websites.  The Government’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) urges people to consult a doctor, rather than purchase the medicine direct from an internet supplier without a prescription.***

The Co-operative Pharmacy research found that common prescription items purchased online included Viagra, the morning after pill and treatments for ‘embarrassing’ conditions like hair loss, excess sweating and bad breath. More than one in ten aged 18 or under admitted to buying Viagra online and over a third in this group had purchased medicines from overseas, with a quarter sourcing medicines from Eastern Europe.

Overall, more than a third (35 per cent) of pharmacy internet shoppers admitted purchasing items from the US, one in five (22 per cent) bought them from Mainland Europe and one in eight (12.6 per cent) purchased them from Eastern Europe. 

The research from the UK’s third largest retail pharmacy also highlighted that three in five people will start their search for ‘trusted’ health information and advice online with Google, while the International Narcotics Control Board recently found that younger audiences are now being targeted by illegal pharmacy sites via social media.****

The Co-operative Pharmacy, which launched an online pharmacy last year, is warning that items bought over the internet whether they are prescription medicines or not, may not always meet the UK regulatory and quality standards unless they are supplied by a registered UK-based pharmacy.

According to the World Health Organisation, medicines purchased over the Internet from illegal sites that conceal their physical address have been found to be counterfeit in more than 50 per cent of cases*****

Janice Perkins, Superintendent Pharmacist at The Co-operative Pharmacy, said: “Prescription only medicines will not be sold to an individual online unless they have undergone a consultation with the appropriate healthcare professional. The research worryingly indicates that a younger group of people are turning to foreign websites to buy medicines without a prescription.

“In addition to increasing the risk that medicines may be substandard or fake, buying online health remedies from outside the UK, means that if they are ineffective or are harmful, then there is no legal way to address this.”

In most cases, a prescription is usually only provided following a face-to-face consultation with a doctor, nurse or other registered health professional. However, genuine medical care can also be provided by some healthcare providers online.******

It is important to have a consultation so the health expert can address whether or not medicines are suitable for an individual. It will also take into account other medicines a patient may be using.

Nimo Ahmed, Acting Head of the MHRA's Enforcement Group, said: "The MHRA has justifiable concerns about medicines, particularly prescription only medicines, being offered from websites.  Prescription medicines, by their very nature, are potent and their effects on patients should be monitored by a qualified healthcare provider.

“We urge patients to obtain their prescription medicine through a registered pharmacy or a General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) approved website.

“Purchasing medicines from any other source, particularly from a website based overseas, is potentially a risk to health. There is no guarantee that medicines purchased on-line meet the set standards of quality and safety that are mandatory in the UK."

An approved UK-based online pharmacy will be registered with the GPhC. A green cross logo in addition to the pharmacy’s registration number can be identified on regulated pharmacy sites.

By clicking on the logo, site visitors are taken to a page on the GPhC website where they can check it is a registered pharmacy.

Top tips:

  • Certain medicines require a prescription – if they can be purchased over the internet without one, don’t buy them.
  • Check that the website has the name of the owner of the business
  • Check that the pharmacy has an address at which business is conducted
  • Check that the name of the superintendent pharmacist is displayed
  • Confirm the registration status of the pharmacy and the pharmacist

Examples of spurious/falsely-labelled/falsified/counterfeit (SFFC) medicines seized in recent years from the UK, US and China include anti-diabetic medicines, Viagra and Cialis for erectile dysfunction and Xenical for fighting obesity.*******


Additional Information:

* Unregulated and not registered in the UK to provide prescription medicines. The MHRA monitors internet sites, especially those known to be selling Prescription Only Medicines. Spot checks are made to see if the internet sites selling prescription only medicines are based in the UK. If so, it is then able to take action and a number of prosecutions have taken place. It refers overseas sites to the appropriate regulatory body in that country.

** One Poll interviewed a random sample of 2,000 adults online.  Surveys were conducted among adults across all ages and regions of the UK.


**** International Narcotics Control Board annual report press release 28 February 2012


******Some healthcare providers will be registered with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and employ General Medical Council (GMC) registered medical practitioners. Not all online healthcare providers need to be legally registered by the Care Quality Commission.

*******Source: The World Health Organisation


About The Co-operative:

The Co-operative Pharmacy has almost 800 branches across the UK and is part of the Co-operative Group, the UK’s largest mutual business, owned not by private shareholders but by over six million consumers. 

The Co-operative Group is the UK’s fifth biggest food retailer and a major financial services provider, operating The Co-operative Bank and The Co-operative Insurance. Among its other businesses are the number one funeral services provider, the third largest pharmacy chain and one of Britain’s largest farming operations. As well as having clear financial and operational objectives, the Group has also set out its social and sustainability goals in its groundbreaking Ethical Plan, which specifies over 50 commitments in these areas.

The Group operates 4,800 retail trading outlets, employs more than 100,000 people and has an annual turnover of more than £13bn.  Further information is available at

Contact Information: 

Alex Wilson
Senior Public Relations Officer - Pharmacy
The Co-operative Group
0161 2663416

Craig Noonan
PR Manager – Specialist Retail
The Co-operative Group
0161 266 3589