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Dangers of Counterfeit ED Drugs

May 15, 2013

The recent news of Pfizer’s decision to sell Viagra online has prompted lots of discussion on counterfeit drugs and buying medications over the internet. And drugs for erectile dysfunction (ED) are in the spotlight.

According to Pfizer, Viagra is its most counterfeited drug and it’s not hard to imagine why. Having problems with erections isn’t something most men like to discuss, even with a doctor. And, clicking around the internet, there seems to be some great deals. Why not skip the hassle of going to the doctor and save some money in the long run?

Doing so is a bad idea. Buying ED medications online is risky. You need to know that the drugs are safe and the retailers are reliable. Unfortunately, research has shown that, often, neither is true.

Keep in mind that while much of the information that follows concerns Viagra, it can apply to other ED drugs, Cialis and Levitra, as well.

What are the risks of buying ED medications online?

If you’re thinking about buying ED drugs online, consider the following:

  • There’s a good chance they’re counterfeit. In a 2011 study, Pfizer, the maker of Viagra, tested samples of drugs purchased from online retailers. The retailers claimed the drugs were Viagra, but 77% of them were counterfeit.
  • They may contain harmful substances. Pfizer officials have found lead paint, rat poison, printer ink, floor wax, drywall, and boric acid in samples purchased online. Drugs may be made in dirty factories with no quality control.
  • They may not contain the standard amount of active ingredient. The Pfizer researchers found that 30% - 50% of the counterfeit Viagra samples they tested did not have the correct amount of sildenafil citrate, the drug’s active ingredient.
  • The packages may leave out critical information. Legitimate Viagra is shipped with a product information sheet that provides instructions on taking the drug and warnings about side effects. This sheet also explains who should not take Viagra. For example, men who take nitrates for conditions like heart disease should not take Viagra, as doing so can cause a dangerous drop in blood pressure.
  • Seeing a doctor for ED is important. ED can be more than a sexual problem. For some men, ED is a symptom of heart disease or diabetes. Catching these conditions early and treating them properly can improve overall health.

Is your ED medication counterfeit?

Sometimes it’s almost impossible to tell. Counterfeiters work very hard to make sure their product looks like the real thing and an unsuspecting consumer may never know the difference.

In the Pfizer study, researchers found subtle visual differences between real and fake Viagra. The font used on the counterfeit versions may be slightly different. There might be different colors used in the Pfizer logo. But the average person may not notice these differences, especially if they haven’t seen legitimate Viagra before.

So how can you tell if your medication is counterfeit? There are some red flags you can watch for:

  • Unusual packaging. Counterfeits may be packaged in unsealed containers, like a plastic bag. Blister packs may be unsealed.
  • The package does not include a patient information sheet. Legitimate medications will include information on how to take the medicine and what side effects to watch for.

If the medication or packaging just don’t look right, or you have a funny feeling about them, don’t take the drug. Notify your doctor or pharmacist.

Staying safe when buying medications online

If you’re thinking about buying ED medication – or any medication – online, be sure to buy from a legitimate pharmacy.

How can you know if the pharmacy is safe? As with the drugs themselves, it’s sometimes difficult to tell. Anyone can put up a website and sell products. A counterfeiter’s website may look professional and include testimonials and comments that appear real but are completely fabricated.

Here are some things to watch for when evaluating an online pharmacy:

  • Is a prescription required? ED medications always require a prescription.
  • Does the seller claim to sell “generic” Viagra? While generic Viagra is available in some countries, it is not available in the United States.
  • Does the seller offer a health screening with an online doctor? You may find sites that don’t require a prescription, but do ask you to go through an online screening, sometimes at a cost. This may make them appear more legitimate. But there is no way of knowing if the “doctor” on the other end is an actual MD. And the only way for such a doctor to evaluate your need for medication is through a face-to-face visit and thorough examination.
  • Does the site list a physical address or phone number? Many counterfeiters do not disclose their actual location and only provide e-mail support.
  • Does the seller require a waiver? Some online pharmacies ask you to sign legal documents that clear them if there’s a problem.

BeSafeRx and VIPPS

Two organizations are making it easier to evaluate online pharmacies.

In the United States, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now offering BeSafeRx, a web resource with information on how to spot an online pharmacy and the risks involved in ordering from one. It also provides links to each state’s board of pharmacy license database, allowing users to ensure that the pharmacy they’re considering is in fact legitimate and licensed.

VIPPS (Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites) is a program sponsored by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). The NABP covers the 50 United States, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, eight Canadian provinces, and New Zealand.

VIPPS is a certification program. To be included, pharmacies must comply with the licensing and inspection rules of their jurisdiction. Consumers can identify a VIPPS-certified pharmacy by finding the VIPPS seal on its website.

Consumers can also look up their pharmacy by verifying its URL here.

As we mentioned earlier, if you have any doubts about either your medication or an online pharmacy, be sure to talk to your doctor or pharmacist. They can point you in the right direction to safely find quality medications.


Associated Press via Huffington Post

Johnson, Linda A.

“Viagra Online: Pfizer To Sell Popular Erectile Dysfunction Pill Directly To Patients On Its Website”

(May 6, 2013)

Bloomberg TV

“Viagra Delivery: Pfizer, CVS to Sell Drug Online”

(Video. May 2013)

Drug Store News

DeArment, Alaric

“CVS handles back-end functions as Pfizer sells Viagra online”

(May 6, 2013)

International Society for Sexual Medicine

“Counterfeit Drugs”

“How can you tell if a medication is counterfeit?”

“Is it safe to buy erection-enhancing drugs over the internet?”

The Journal of Sexual Medicine

Campbell, Neil, et al.

“Internet-Ordered Viagra (Sildenafil Citrate) Is Rarely Genuine”

(Full-text. First published online: August 27, 2012)

National Association of Boards of Pharmacy

“Is that Pharmacy Safe?”

“VIPPS Information and Verification Site”

“Why Not Recommended?”


“Facing Off Against Counterfeit Online Pharmacies: Pfizer Launches New Purchasing Website To Help Alleviate the Guesswork Around Buying Legitimate Viagra® (sildenafil citrate) Online”

(Press release. May 6, 2013)

Sell, David

“Pfizer to begin selling Viagra online”

(May 8, 2013)

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

“About BeSafeRx”

(Page last updated: September 28, 2012)

“Buying Prescription Medicine Online: A Consumer Safety Guide”

(Page last updated: October 4, 2012)