Protecting the health of Internet users or protecting pharma profits?

The search engine, Bing, announced in May that it will now accept .pharmacy top-level domains as proof of online pharmacy accreditation from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). Bing’s ad program already requires that pharmaceutical advertisers are accredited by the NABP.  If you use Bing, you may have noticed its attempts to scare consumers from visiting safe and legitimate international pharmacy websites.

With these developments and the recent CircleID article, Protecting the Health of Internet Users: Q&A with .pharmacy, we felt the need to reiterate our concerns about the .pharmacy domain. Despite good intentions of protecting consumer safety, we believe the domain will ultimately be anticompetitive and detrimental to consumers seeking affordable medicine online.

Like the respected consumer advocacy group, Public Citizen, we filed a public comment with ICANN, the nonprofit that oversees global domain names and ensures the stability of the World Wide Web, opposing the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) application for the generic top level domain “.pharmacy” back in 2013. In late 2014, Lee Graczyk, our lead organizer, also delivered 24,349 petition signatures opposing NABP’s bid to control the .pharmacy domain to an ICANN Public Forum in Los Angeles.

The NABP has an institutional history demonstrating its objective to prevent drug importation. The NABP’s Internet Drug Identification Outlet Program, launched in 2008 with the help of a Pfizer grant, publishes a “not recommended” list of “rogue” online pharmacies that unfairly groups legitimate international online pharmacies with criminal enterprises that sell fake medicine or real medicine without a prescription.

With this list, the NABP created a false dichotomy when it comes to prescription drug safety. The organization would have us believe that all U.S. prescription drugs are safe while all foreign drugs are not. The .pharmacy program headed by NABP appears to be subject to the same biases.

Certainly there are unscrupulous rogue sites that use deceptive and underhanded tactics to get American consumers to buy fake or adulterated medication. But there are also safe and legitimate Canadian and other international pharmacy sites, which require a doctor’s prescription and allow consumers to access needed medications at much lower prices. Due diligence is critical when choosing an online pharmacy to ensure safety. RxRights will support any NABP efforts to warn and educate consumers about actual rogue sites, those known to sell falsified and substandard medication or real medication without a prescription. But their intentional grouping of dangerous sites with safe online pharmacies is unreasonable. Misinformation of this nature threatens public health and limits American access to affordable medicine.

In addition, the .pharmacy initiative is funded by five big pharmaceutical firms: Eli Lilly, Gilead Sciences, Janssen Therapeutics, Merck and Pfizer. These multinational pharmaceutical companies are clearly vying for control of the Internet so it can be used for a commercial advantage.

Americans—and the global community for that matter—deserve Internet governance that maximizes information and protects the consumer’s right to safely access affordable medicine. Four million Americans import their needed medications from Canada and other countries each year (despite the fact that it’s not technically legal). Many have come to depend on this cheaper alternative—often saving 50 percent or more on U.S. prices.

As we know from the many testimonials we’ve received from Americans across the country, importing safe and affordable prescription drugs is not only possible, it’s vital. As Stephen Schondelmeyer, Ph.D., drug pricing expert and head of the University of Minnesota Department of Pharmaceutical Care and Health Systems says, “A drug that’s not affordable is neither safe nor effective.”

RxRights is an American-based consumer advocacy group that’s dedicated to ensuring access to safe, affordable prescription drugs and is 80,000 members strong. We feature tips on our website for finding a safe international online pharmacy.