June 17, 2014 -- You can find almost anything on Amazon, including powerful and potentially dangerous prescription drugs.
A quick search by ABC News found prescription antibiotics and an asthma inhaler for sale on the mega-site, both of which carry potentially serious side effects and should only be used under the supervision of a doctor, according to Gina Caliendo, director of pharmacy at the Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.
“Without a provider’s input, you might be treating symptoms of a more serious problem, or might be selecting a medication that has interactions or side effects,” said Caliendo.
It’s illegal to sell prescription drugs without a license, and licensed online retailers can only sell drugs to consumers who have a prescription. Amazon does not have a pharmacy license and has stated policies against selling prescription drugs on their site. But that hasn't stopped third party sellers from offering them up to consumers, often without meeting legal requirements or asking for a prescription.
Amazon declined to comment to ABC News, but quickly removed the Ventolin Evoinhaler and the antibiotic, called Flagyl ER Tabs, from its site when they were flagged by ABC News – a move some experts have compared to a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.
“They take something down and then it pops up a few months later,” said Oliver Catlin, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles-based Banned Substances Control Group, which tracks drugs sold as over-the-counter supplements. “The general feeling is that anything you buy on Amazon, you have an expectation that it has been scrutinized and wholly acceptable, and that is not the case.”
Dr. Ford Vox, a brain injury specialist with the Shepard Center in Atlanta, Georgia, said his wife ordered an acne medication on Amazon that turned out to be the prescription-only antibiotic, clindamycin. In an essay published on Slate.com, Vox said he found at least three other medications illegally sold on the site without a prescription.
“I have by no means executed a comprehensive search of wares sold by Amazon directly or through its third-party sellers, but I found other prescription drugs for sale without a prescription, including the antibiotic norfloxacin and the muscle relaxant methocarbamol,” Vox wrote in essay, noting that both drugs have potentially serious side effects if used improperly.
Vox said Amazon removed the medications mentioned in his essay shortly after its publication.
Although Catlin has only searched Amazon for prescription drugs, he said he assumes any company with large distribution centers and multiple vendors might let the occasional unsafe or illegal product slip through the cracks.
A cursory search of eBay revealed two prescription drugs – an anti-inflammatory and a heart medication – being sold illegally on the site. When contacted by ABC News, a company spokesman said the online retailer’s sales policies are similar to Amazon's.
"We take proactive measures to identify listings that violate our policies, including but not limited to keyword filters and monitoring tools," said Ryan Moore, eBay’s lead manager of business communications. "Additionally, every listing has a 'report this item' link allowing our community members to alert us to listings for our review and removal."
Catlin said he thought regulatory agencies also need to do a better job of cracking down on Internet prescription sales.
“You have to wonder if government agencies have enough resources to manage this issue effectively,” he said.
In a statement to ABC News, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it does routine surveillance of drug sales on the Internet and has taken steps to educate consumers on the dangers of buying prescription drugs online. The statement added that large retail sites like Amazon and eBay have “often been effective in addressing the agency’s concerns.”
The FDA urges consumers who purchase their drugs over the Internet to stick with large, established sites that hold a license from the state board of pharmacy where they are operating. Sites should require a prescription from a doctor or another health care professional who is licensed to prescribe medicines, according to the agency. A pharmacist should also be available to respond to questions.
Dr. Jamie Zimmerman contributed to this story.