Americans Wary Of Buying Drugs Online

More than 60% say they don't trust drugs sold on the Web.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

October 11, 2004

3 Min Read

Most Americans believe buying prescription drugs online is less safe than their local pharmacies, and only one in 25 has ever used the Internet to buy medicine, a new survey shows.

Despite sites established by several states to help Americans look for cheaper drugs in Canada, far fewer than the 4% of Americans who have bought drugs over the Internet have filled their prescriptions with foreign pharmacies, the Pew Internet and American Life Project said in a report released Sunday.

"There's anxiety about it," Susannah Fox, Pew's director of research, says. "People aren't sure that they want to be the first in their circle to buy drugs online."

A majority of Americans, 62%, say they don't trust the drugs sold on the Web, preferring to visit local pharmacies instead, according to the study. However, more than a quarter have used the Internet to do research on prescription drugs.

Americans' wariness of the Internet comes despite efforts by a handful of states to help the chronically ill, usually the elderly, buy cheaper drugs in Canada. States that had established sites to help such people before Pew conducted the survey May 15 to June 17 include Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. Illinois launched a site later in the summer, and Rhode Island links its site to Wisconsin's.

While allowing such state-run sites, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned consumers that it can't guarantee the safety of drugs bought through foreign pharmacies.

People who have filled prescriptions online tend to live in higher-income households and have at least six years of Internet experience. Three out of four say their most recent purchases were for a chronic illness, such as high-blood pressure or arthritis.

"They were satisfied with the quality of drugs they received online, and they were overwhelmingly satisfied with the customer service and with the cost," Fox says. "But the most important of these factors was convenience. Convenience was the No. 1 reason that this small group of people made the leap to online drug purchasing, and nine out of 10 said they would do it again."

While not making any market predictions, Fox says the behavior of these consumers was parallel to early adopters of online banking, who also turned to the Internet for the convenience. The number of users, however, eventually grew through word of mouth and marketing from financial institutions.

Nevertheless, while early users of the Internet for drugs cite convenience today, that could easily be trumped in the future by cost savings, if the number of people going online increases.

"Attitudes could change if a large group of people with chronic illnesses start to buy drugs online and find them cheaper," Fox says.

Online prescription drug sales are increasing, according to IMS Health Inc. The consulting firm estimates sales reached $407 million in 2003, compared with $160 million in 2002.

The Pew survey was conducted through random telephone calls to 2,200 adults, 1,399 with Internet connections. The study has a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.

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