In 2008, the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) published a report about the prevalence and dangers of rouge online pharmacies that illegally sell controlled substances. We support CASA’s efforts to protect consumers from dangerous drug-selling websites, especially those that sell addictive drugs, and since 2003 have raised public awareness about the dangers of rogue online pharmacies. As part of its research, CASA found rogue pharmacies on Google’s sponsored results. However, it wrongly assumed that all such sites were approved by PharmacyChecker.com. Soon after, the New York Times published an article covering CASA’s report, which included the same faulty assumption.
Recently, after kindly meeting with us, CASA sent us the list of pharmacies identified as “rogue” that it found advertising on Google. Almost all the pharmacies on the list never applied to the PharmacyChecker.com Verification Program and were certainly not members of our program. Based on this data, we wrote a letter to the Times to explain that its article was wrongly critical of PharmacyChecker.com and based on false assumptions. Excerpts from the letter are published below.
Tagged with: CASA, Google, NYT, Online Pharmacy Verification Services, pharmacychecker.com, rogue pharmacies
Dear Barbara –
We recently received evidence that a July 9th, 2008, article in the New York Times called “Abuses are found in online sales of medication,” contained misinformation that wrongly faulted our company, PharmacyChecker.com, for the problem of rogue online pharmacy advertisers on Google.
A quick background on PharmacyChecker: Founded in 2002, we evaluate online pharmacies and compare their prices on our website. In 2006, Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft engaged PharmacyChecker.com to help them qualify online pharmacy advertisers and help prevent rogue sites from advertising. These relationships, however, did not give us direct control over search engine marketing platforms to actually permit or prevent online pharmacies from advertising.
The 2008 Times article noted above covered the main findings of a report published by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) called “You’ve Got Drugs: Prescription Drug Pushers On the Internet”. CASA’s report correctly asserts that many rogue online pharmacy sites were found in the organic results of a Google search. It also found rogue online pharmacies advertising on Google’s adWords program. We agree on both points but firmly dispute and can show that the problem should not have been attributed to PharmacyChecker.com.
Referring to the problem of rouge online pharmacies, the article reads: “…Federal drug authorities have begun working with credit card companies and banks to try to prevent such transactions, while major Internet search engines have used a verification program called Pharmacy Checker to confirm that advertisers are legitimate. But the system appears to be full of holes, critics say.”
We read this sentence to mean that “critics” claimed that PharmacyChecker.com’s system is “full of holes” and that CASA’s findings demonstrate this. We knew this to be false at the time and new data that we received from CASA bears this out. Unfortunately, PharmacyChecker.com was neither contacted by CASA in putting together its report nor by the New York Times for comment before publishing the article.
At the time of CASA’s research, Google’s stated policy was that all online pharmacies required approval in the PharmacyChecker.com Verification Program to advertise on adWords, Google’s search marketing program. What CASA did not understand was that PharmacyChecker.com only provided information to Google; Google remained ultimately responsible for using that information for determining its advertisers. In February of this year, we obtained a list from CASA of the 23 online pharmacy advertisers on Google which were the basis for CASA’s conclusions about PharmacyChecker.com. Nineteen of the sites had never even applied to our program, and were certainly not approved by PharmacyChecker.com. Only four of the twenty-three sites on that list were approved by PharmacyChecker: two were legitimate online pharmacies and two were referral sites that linked to legitimate online pharmacies, all requiring a prescription from a patient’s doctor.
This is not to claim perfection. Some online pharmacies have succeeded in temporarily gaining approval in our program using bait-and-switch tactics (by following the rules and then breaking them). But because of our continual monitoring, mystery shopping, and other methods of detecting bad behavior, such sites are soon terminated from our program. Clearly, PharmacyChecker.com’s program for helping Google qualify online pharmacies was not the “hole” in the system allowing rogue pharmacies to advertise. Rogue pharmacies were somehow skirting other aspects of Google’s advertising policy and controls.
While CASA’s focus is on controlled substances and drug abuse, groups aligned with, or directly funded by, pharmaceutical interests have misused its report as fodder. The report has aided such groups in their efforts to curtail lower cost, non-U.S. pharmacies from advertising to Americans as well as to discredit our company, as we are viewed as facilitating this practice. This is strangely ironic, as our program specifically excludes any pharmacy that would ship a controlled substance into the United States.
Perhaps prompted by pressure it received as a result of the CASA report, which included erroneous conclusions about PharmacyChecker, just two months ago Google changed its online pharmacy policy to restrict all Canadian and other non-US online pharmacies from advertising on Google in the U.S. Online pharmacies must now receive certification by the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites program run by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, which is only open to U.S. pharmacies, most of which are the major national chains and pharmacy benefit managers. It no longer uses the PharmacyChecker.com program, though Yahoo! and Microsoft continue to do so.
We’re not asking for a retraction, as the error lay primarily with the original CASA report and not with the Times. What we would like is for you to consider a follow up story on the subject of online pharmacies and personal drug importation, which remain a lifeline for many Americans, despite much opposition by the pharmaceutical industry and groups funded by it. We also hope that, going forward, we will be consulted by journalists of the New York Times covering related stories, especially when we’re mentioned.