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Report: The Internet and Drugs Don't Mix

Approximately a quarter of all Americans have researched prescription drugs online, but only a few are buying pharmaceuticals through the Internet, according to a new study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

With the price of prescription drugs increasingly becoming a political hot button, the study illustrated that only four percent of Americans have purchased drugs online, and that the majority of those purchased them from U.S.-based sites.

The new study also revealed that 62 percent of Americans think buying prescription drugs online is less safe than purchasing them at a local pharmacy.

"It surprised me that the level of activity for buying was so low," report author Susannah Fox said. "There's a high level of discussion but a low level of activity."

The Pew telephone survey of 2,200 American adults was undertaken just one month before the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation to allow prescription drug imports from Canada and other countries. The Senate has not enacted similar legislation.

In addition, the federal government announced changes to the Medicare system, including the publication of prescription drug prices online. And Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and New Hampshire have launched directories of recommended Canadian pharmacies, which offer prices below those in the United States.

At the same time, the pharmaceutical industry has strongly opposed the importation of drugs, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration claims that it cannot guarantee the safety of imported drugs. However, a June 2004 General Accounting Office study found that Canadian online pharmacies are just as likely as U.S.-based sites to adhere to safety standards.

"With the general sense of anxiety [about drug prices], now is actually a good time for a discussion of the issue," Fox said. "Now that the cost and safety of prescription drugs have come to the forefront of policy debates, we see that significant numbers of Americans are turning to the Internet to get information and explore drug purchases."

Fox said Pew has been tracking "significant increases" over the past five years of Americans seeking health information through the Internet. While a relatively few are currently buying online, Fox said there are indications that Americans could change their minds about the safety of online prescription purchases.

As an example, the Pew report cites data that shows the online travel industry saw a 90 percent growth rate between 2000 and 2004. The report says Internet users who have done travel-related research online are more likely to book online than those who do not do online research.

"If an increasing number of Americans goes online to to research prescription drugs, online pharmacies may see an accompanying increase in customers," the report stated.

Of Americans who have purchased online prescription drugs, nine out of 10 say they plan to do so again.

"Those who were dissatisfied with their purchases are unlikely to cite reasons related to fears about drug safety," the report said. "As more municipalities and states encourage online prescription drug purchases, it seems likely that the universe of potential satisfied customers will grow."