Illicit pharmaceutical drug sales find a home on Twitter

prescription-laptop-pillsThe pharmaceutical world has been flocking to Twitter, just like the rest of the universe, often in an attempt to draw attention to new scientific discoveries aiding in the treatment of disease or to connect with others in their field. It’s a useful platform for Safe Medicines, an online clearinghouse for news and educational articles related to counterfeit medications. Those readers who are interested in learning the latest news related to the pharmaceutical world can follow the Twitter feeds of Pharmacy Times or Pharmacy Today. Even the notorious Pharma Bro Martin Shkreli, who saw the court of public opinion turn against him because of recent business decisions, has garnered attention by using the social media platform.

However, Twitter’s popularity has not only benefited the legitimate side of the pharmaceutical industry. A study released in December, supported by both the Global Health Policy Institute and the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, found an empirical link between all Twitter content and content aimed at the illicit drug sales. A survey of two week’s worth of posts shared on Twitter, involving the analysis of more than two million tweets, turned up 45,000 tweets which encouraged drug abuse. The survey found that more than three-quarters of tweets both pertaining to the non-medical use of prescription medications and including a hyperlink to a sales affiliate related to the anti-anxiety drug Valium.

We’ve written before on the high percentage of online pharmacies which flout American consumer safety laws for pharmaceuticals here on IPWatchdog. It’s true that medicines can be very expensive, even with insurance, and in some cases medicines available online cost 90 percent less than they would in a brick-and-mortar pharmacy. However, there is no regulatory oversight of the chemicals used in the medications and the vast majority of consumers would not know if the medication would adversely interact with others being taken by the patient.

Twitter’s official policy on advertising restricts the promotion of health and pharmaceutical products and services. It does allow for the promotion of licensed over-the-counter medications targeting consumers in the U.S., just as it’s allowed for targeting consumers in Canada, Brazil, France, Australia, England, Saudi Arabia and a few dozen others. Twitter policy for the U.S. specifically mandates that promotional posts do not offer the online sale or refill of prescription drugs, although pharmaceutical manufacturers are allowed to advertise with some restrictions. Medical device ads are permitted, although ads for devices requiring pre-market approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration must receive prior authorization from Twitter. Online pharmacies which are accredited by the National Association Boards of Pharmacy have some ability to advertise as well. In just about every case, prior authorization from Twitter is required for advertising.


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