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Buying prescriptions online: a safe bet?
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Regulations and certifications
While importing drugs -- even for personal use -- is technically illegal, in practice the U.S. government doesn't stop such importation, which is why busloads of U.S. citizens continue to cross the borders between the United States and Canada or Mexico and come home with shopping bags full of their prescription drugs. Here's a rundown on locations:

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  • United States-based: Internet pharmacies actually based in the United States are usually online outposts of chain drugstores or online pharmacies that dispense only popular drugs, according to Levitt.
  • Canada: Usually the foreign market of choice for U.S. consumers, Canadian pharmacies are regulated in a similar fashion to U.S. pharmacies.
  • Mexico: The Mexican market is far less developed and regulated than either the U.S. or Canadian markets, and while U.S. consumers can access drugs more cheaply, and in many cases without a prescription, there are no guarantees about the quality of the drugs you're getting, Levitt says.
  • Britain, Australia, Israel, Europe, India and New Zealand: Strong regulation exists in these countries, with standards for drugs, drug distribution and pharmacies.
  • Others: Regulation and oversight varies tremendously from country to country.
  • The Federal Drug Administration, or FDA, regulates drug approval and manufacturing in the United States. While the FDA isn't perfect -- witness the Vioxx scandal and attendant lawsuits -- it still requires rigorous testing, an application process and review of drugs before they make it to market, as well as a review at the time the drugs are manufactured.

    The FDA must approve prescription drugs sold in the United States, though individuals importing drugs from other countries for personal use aren't usually sanctioned. Individual pharmacies are regulated by state pharmacy boards, which also license pharmacists. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, or NABP, certifies Internet pharmacies through its Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site program, or VIPPS. In order to become certified, an online pharmacy must:

    • Submit a detailed application, including licensure information;
    • Host a site visit from a National Association of Boards of Pharmacy team;
    • Pass a rigorous review of its policies, sales practices, Web site and application performed by the same team.

    Once an Internet pharmacy is certified, it can display the VIPPS seal. Unfortunately, some pharmacies have displayed this certification without actually receiving it, so when you see the seal, click on it to make sure it is legitimate. When you click on it, you should go to the VIPPS Web site where you can confirm that the pharmacy is indeed certified. This program only covers U.S. pharmacies. To find a VIPPS pharmacy, go to: www.nabp.net/vipps/intro.asp.

    PharmacyChecker.com includes data showing whether a pharmacy is VIPPS certified, as well as price comparisons and a rating. Pharmacy Checker also includes foreign Internet pharmacies in its database.

    The Internet and Mail Order Pharmacy Accreditation Commission certifies international online and mail-order pharmacies through a similar process to VIPPS. To access a list of certified pharmacies, go to: www.impacsurvey.org. Canadian pharmacies that sell prescription drugs over the Internet are certified by the Canadian International Pharmacy Association. For a list of members, go to www.ciparx.ca.

     
     
    Next: Your job isn't done when the medications arrive.
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