The government frowns on overseas buys, but makes exceptions for Canada.

The government frowns on overseas buys, but makes exceptions for Canada.(ISTOCKPHOTO/HEALTH)

Whether it's vacationers stocking up on prescriptions or Internet surfers who order their medications from foreign pharmacies online, purchasing meds from abroad has been touted as a great way to save money—and for good reason. The United States is one of the few countries in the world in which the government doesnt control or negotiate the price of prescription drugs, and as a result, brand-name drugs are on average 35% to 55% cheaper in other industrialized countries than they are in the U.S.

As tempting as it is to view the world as one big discount pharmacy, buying prescription drugs abroad isnt a foolproof way to save money. For one thing, it may be illegal.

Restrictions Have Eased in Some Cases
The laws governing the importation of prescription drugs are complex and filled with lots of gray area. Although purchasing prescription medicines from foreign pharmacies is technically illegal, in most cases, the high cost of drugs in the U.S. has pressured the government into easing some restrictions.

Ordering drugs from other countries is now effectively allowed under the law if the drugs are clearly for personal use and do not present an unreasonable risk to the individual. With some restrictions, the law also specifically provides an exception for purchasing drugs from Canada. As of October 2006, U.S. Customs officers also suspended their policy of seizing packages of prescription drugs from Canada in the mail and at border crossings. And at least half a dozen state governments, including those in Wisconsin and Illinois, have set up programs to help residents order drugs from abroad.

The FDA continues to discourage this practice, however, because the agency cannot guarantee the integrity of imported medications or the legitimacy of the pharmacies that sell them.

The Internet has made ordering drugs easier than ever before, but it can also disguise the source of the drugs you are buying. Even ordering online (or by mail) from a Canadian pharmacy is not necessarily a way to play it safe. A 2005 FDA operation—in which the agency examined nearly 4,000 packages at airports in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles—found that 85% of the drugs ordered from what customers believed were Canadian pharmacies actually came from 27 other countries. Upon examination, a number of the products were also found to be counterfeit.

Sleep med turns out to be antipsychotic
Counterfeit drugs can cause adverse side effects, which can be life-threatening. In February 2007, some Internet customers who thought they were ordering Ambien (for insomnia), Xanax and Ativan (for anxiety), and Lexapro (for depression and anxiety) received drugs containing haloperidol, a powerful antipsychotic; some subsequently sought medical treatment for symptoms such as difficulty breathing and muscle spasms. "Most drugs coming from outside the U.S. are unapproved, illegal, and potentially pose risks," says FDA spokesman Chris Kelly. "Sometimes sellers from outside the U.S. dont follow our standards in labeling drugs for safe and effective use, so consumers might not be getting proper information about how to take the drug and/or about side effects."

Although a website may appear to be reputable and may look similar to legitimate retail pharmacy websites, it may be providing unapproved drugs from unreliable sources. Before placing an order, check if the site is accredited by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). Online pharmacies vetted by the NABP carry a blue oval seal that reads “VIPPS,” which stands for Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site.

Buying drugs abroad has the potential to save you money, but it is important to do so cautiously and within the law. You should also keep in mind that, generally, only brand-name drugs are cheaper outside of the United States. Generic drugs are usually less expensive in the U.S. than in Canada. Some large chain stores (such as Wal-Mart and Target) offer a 30-day supply of many generics for just $4. "That is less than the shipping price of most Internet sellers," Kelly points out. And although brand-name drugs from Canadian pharmacies are cheaper, the savings have declined in recent years due to a weaker American dollar.