Warning over fake drugs on the internet

More than 2 million people in Britain regularly buy prescription drugs such as Prozac and Viagra on the internet, in spite of the risk that they could be sold fakes, research revealed yesterday.

The extent of Britain's online pill habit was exposed in a survey commissioned by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, which warned that millions of Britons could be playing russian roulette with their health because up to 50% of all drugs seized prove to be counterfeit.

"The internet presents a real danger to people's health," said David Pruce, the society's director of practice and quality improvement. "Dishonest traders are selling medicines online without any professional qualifications or healthcare expertise. The products they sell can be poor quality at best and dangerous at worst."

Some legitimate pharmacies run online services, but many of the websites are set up by people with no medical or pharmacy expertise and their products may be fakes. In the last two years, the medicines watchdog, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA), has seized £5.8m worth of drugs of which it estimates around half have been counterfeit.

Some fake drugs are harmless in themselves. But others are dangerous because they contain a smaller amount of the active ingredient than the patient needs.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society is rolling out a new internet pharmacy logo today to help buyers judge whether a website is legitimate (internetpharmacylogo.org). Other checks should also be made, it says, including the registration status of the pharmacist.

The most popular online pills are:

· Prozac - a pack of 30 tablets costs £20 online. More than 3.5 million people in Britain take antidepressants, with Prozac among the most widely prescribed of its type. There have also been reports of clubgoers "self-medicating" with Prozac to counter the comedown from ecstasy. In 2003, 81 deaths were attributed to overdoses of thes e types of drugs and there have been reports of these causing some people to kill themselves.

· Viagra - about £50 for four genuine tablets. Viagra nets more than £1bn a year for Pfizer. Many more millions change hands for the thousands of counterfeit copies that are available. Genuine, branded Viagra tablets will cost around £10, but fakes are available for as little as £2 each. Doctors are concerned that it has also become a "clubbers' drug" with people mixing it with illegal substances such as ecstasy despite warnings that it can carry risks of heart problems.

· Valium - about £50 for 30 tablets online. Recently doctors began reporting a rise in the number of young women using Valium to sleep after taking cocaine or amphetamines. They buy online or get it from the dealers who sell them illegal drugs. The Priory hospital in Roehampton, London estimates that up to one in 10 patients at its addiction centre are hooked on Valium.

· Ritalin - about £20 for 60 tablets. It has a chemical formula similar to cocaine. Because it is an appetite suppressant, young girls and teenagers have been known to take it to keep slim.

· Serostim - about £6 for one injection. It is used to help build up the strength of Aids patients who suffer weight loss. Bodybuilders buy it online to bulk out muscle. It also enables them to recover faster after workouts. Women are injecting it in an effort to combat the effects of ageing and there have been reports of people in the film industry using it to make their skin look tighter and younger.

· Provigil - About £90 for 30 tablets online. Provigil is marketed as a treatment for narcolepsy, a condition that causes excessive sleepiness. Suggestions that it could also help boost weight loss and mood have made it even more popular. Clubbers use it to party through the night, while business people buy it to help them through long days in the office, and students take it to keep revising.

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