The company Blink Health is advertising Canadian drugs on
Google, even though it does not sell medication from Canadian pharmacies. Should
the company do that? Is that false advertising?
in early 2016, Blink Health offers consumers the ability to purchase
prescription medicines from its app or website and pick them up from local
pharmacies in their neighborhoods. This distinguishes them other drug price
comparison leaders that offer pharmacy discount cards and coupons for U.S.
pharmacies – ours is called the PharmacyChecker
Discount Card. Since Blink Health’s launch, several similar services have
sprouted, most notably Capsule,
which launched in my hometown.
As I understand it, the firm’s goal is to find and increase
discounts as it develops greater buying power through greater volumes, also
known as economies of scale. I like it and it’s my hope – and belief – that Blink
Health is saving people money on their generics. So, hats off to you, Blink
But it’s kind of aggravating that, as I see it, Blink Health is fooling consumers who are looking for lower cost prescription drugs from Canada who will likely not get what they’re looking for when they click that ad. Brand drugs cost way more at Blink Health than in Canada.
I’m writing to you from Berlin, Germany on Thanksgiving and I’m missing my family. But it was important to be here. I came to attend and participate at the United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF). At the IGF, people from all over the world delve into an assortment of internet issues that impact the lives of people everywhere. Very broadly, the topics covered related to free speech, privacy, competition, security, child safety, nationalism, protecting democratic elections, and the reason I was here: discussing and promoting access to safe and affordable medicine on the Internet. Attendees and participants are affiliated with international governmental organizations, national governments, non-profit organizations, activists, businesses, journalists, and a wide array of policy professionals focused on internet governance.
What is internet governance? I like this definition from Georgia Tech School of Public Policy:
“Internet governance refers to the rules, policies, standards and practices that coordinate and shape global cyberspace.”
One of the Sustainable Development Goals, 3.8, created under UN auspices is: “Achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all.” Lower-income countries where majorities of citizens can’t afford basic healthcare are deserving of our urgent and generous help, but the pain and anguish faced by American families where people are dying because they can’t afford medicine must also be addressed.
Organized under the support of the World Health Organization
(WHO), as part of the effort to achieve global healthcare goals, twelve
multilateral global health and development organizations are seeking public
comments to help them develop their “Global Action Plan for Healthy Lives
and Well-being for All.” My comment is below.
Until we lower drug prices here at home in America, online access
to affordable medication internationally is clearly essential. But what if we
lived in a country where people were no longer able to find safe international
In an ideal world, search algorithms empower consumers to
find the exact information they are looking for on these search engines. In a
recent Google algorithm update (March 2019), which affected the “natural” or
“organic,” non-paid search results, we wonder if there was foul play involved
in which Google was caving in
to Big Pharma. The Electronic Frontier Foundation identified this problem
in 2016, in “How
Big Pharma’s Shadow Regulation Censors the Internet.”
The results at the very top of your Google search are often ads, which are of course paid placement: a different problem.
Those patients searching on Google for information about affording medicine through online pharmacies were significantly disadvantaged by the Google March 2019 Core Update. The reason is that results for PharmacyChecker ‘s verification and pricing information are now much harder to find than they were on March 11th, 2019— a day before the update.
According to a new study published by the American Enterprise Institute, the search engine Bing, which is owned by Microsoft, has added pop-up warnings to search results that increase the chances that web searchers will click to rogue online pharmacies. As the reports shows, Bing’s action appears to purposefully thwart safe personal importation of more affordable medicines. It is one of the clearest examples of censorship resulting from “voluntary agreements” among Internet companies, “encouraged” by regulators, that will threaten the health of patients buying medicine online under the guise of protecting them. Bing has placed warnings on its organic search results of Canadian-based and other international online pharmacies, yet the search engine fails to do so for many rogue websites, ones proven to sell counterfeit drugs. Here’s how that happened.
The problem is Bing’s use of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy’s (NABP) Not Recommended List (NRL). Many of the NABP’s programs involving online sales of medicines and educating the public about online pharmacies are funded by drug companies, and therefore supportive of the industry’s profit-protecting goals against importation.
The future of your ability to buy lower-cost medicine online from another country was indirectly discussed recently during congressional hearings with Facebook Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, and CEO and founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey.
The issues on the table were much more grandiose-sounding than importation from Canada or buying medication internationally using the Internet. Russian meddling in our elections; political bias on Twitter against conservative and Republican ideas; personal privacy protection; and lots of discussions that affect 1st Amendment protections.
The takeaway by some experts is that Congress is getting ready to regulate the Internet.
As it applies to online access to safe and affordable medicine, Internet regulation could lead to access protections or access denied. In short, the pharmaceutical industry is actively engaged in driving safe international online pharmacies offline. The industry can often get what it wants from Congress and so the dangers of Internet censorship to block access to or shutdown international online pharmacies are real.
Google’s top executives were invited to the hearings yesterday, but they declined to attend. Some accused them of being arrogant. But the company itself noted that search engines, like Google and Bing, are not the same as social media networks, like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Google’s search engine was not used by bad actors in the way that occurred on Facebook, for example.
Google’s absence reminded me of Ms. Sandberg’s appearance at another Congressional hearing when she was vice president of global sales for Google in 2004. That hearing of the Committee on Governmental Affairs; Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations focused on Internet access to medication and importation. In prepared remarks, Ms. Sandberg stated Google’s position on importation and online pharmacies:
“As a provider of Internet-based information tools, Google has no position on the broader merits of the drug importation debate, or on the optimal mechanisms for regulation of online pharmacies; rather, our interest is to preserve the ability of Internet users to find useful and relevant information, including information about licensed pharmacies.”
That was then; this is now. Fast forward to last spring: Google has made a deal with the FDA that undermines its earliest and best principles as articulated by Ms. Sandberg. That deal is not about blocking Canadian pharmacy ads on Google. That’s old news in bad policy-making. The new deal is that Google will remove search results if asked by the FDA, based on its administrative decisions, without a court order. These are so called “organic” searches, not paid results.
To date, the FDA has yet to use this new permission from Google to censor safe international online pharmacies. And it continues to use due process through warning letters to rogue online pharmacies, as it did to combat sites selling tramadol without a prescription. I agreed with the FDA on that action because those sites have proven to harm people who are addicted to opioids.
But, you know, pharmaceutical companies have spent four billion dollars lobbying Congress over the last 20 years or so. And if Congress is legislating new regulations to control behavior on the Internet, Pharma won’t be far behind with its goal to stop Americans from buying more affordable meds online.