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Cruisin’ for Drugs

Harold E. Cohen, RPh
Editor-in-Chief



2/17/2012
US Pharm. 2012;36(2):3.  

While everyone has their favorite vacation trips, for me one of the most relaxing getaways is aboard a ship cruising on an open sea to remote ports of call. I find that sitting on the deck of a cruise ship on the way to its next harbor, sucking in the fresh air of the open sea, listening to jazz on my iPod while reading a good book, is just one piece of an exceptional vacation. Pulling into an exotic port, exploring another part of the world and delving into its culture and topography, is the other half of a perfect trip. This naturally includes visiting the cities, towns, and villages on one’s own or through a variety of prepaid land excursions. 

Having recently returned from a week-long cruise to Mexico, Honduras, and Belize, I was actually shocked by the number of people who couldn’t care less about the culture or sights of our port cities, but instead were more interested in rushing to the pharmacies that cater primarily to cruise passengers in just about every foreign place. The night before our first stop, in Mexico, I had a conversation with a passenger who was indifferent to visiting a Mayan ruin or learning more about the rich history and culture of the area; all he was concerned with was getting to the “drug store” located minutes from where we docked to purchase drugs he would have needed a prescription for in the United States. 

My pharmacist’s curiosity took over, and I too went to the pharmacy, which was very crowded with cruise passengers looking for drugs from generic Viagra to generic Ambien—and everything in between. When I met up with the aforementioned man that evening after we set sail for our next destination, I asked him how it was that he wouldn’t eat the food or drink the water in any of the ports we visited but had no hesitation in ingesting potent prescription products without any idea how, or where, they were made. I was truly amazed. He had no idea that many, if not most, of the products being sold in these “drug stores” were counterfeit or at the very least not manufactured under the same FDA controls as those in the U.S. On one package I picked up, the year in which the drug would expire had been blacked out by a marker, leaving only the month readable. And yet, people were purchasing these products without prescriptions from individuals dressed in white jackets, presumably representing themselves as pharmacists. I told the man that purchasing drugs in these foreign pharmacies is just as bad as, if not worse than, purchasing them on the Internet, where about 80% of the drugs sold are counterfeit. 

I explained to him that there are thousands of counterfeit incidents reported every year. Research shows that fake drugs are a very profitable business, taking in from $75 billion to as much as $200 billion a year. And nothing is off-limits to counterfeiters. There are reports of counterfeit blood glucose test strips, erectile dysfunction drugs, Tamiflu, emergency birth control, Alli, Xenical, Zyprexa, oncology drugs, and just about every best-selling generic under the sun regardless of therapeutic category. 

Nevertheless, of the throngs of passengers who visited these pharmacies during our cruise, many were not aware of the enormity of this problem; or, worse yet, they didn’t care. Pharmacists are in the best position to educate patients about the proliferation of counterfeit drugs and how not to be fooled by attractive offers of low prices on the Internet or in foreign “drug stores.” They should also tell their cruise-bound patients to be wary of drugs purchased in offshore pharmacies. Cruisin’ for drugs is a risky business that can ruin any vacation. My advice is to read a good book and enjoy the fresh sea air, but to buy your medications from a reputable source at home before you embark. It could be the healthiest thing you’ve ever done. 

To comment on this article, contact editor@uspharmacist.com.

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