Companies & Industries

Canadian online pharmacies battle their evil twins

Maple leaf used to sell counterfeit drugs

(Photo: Peter Dazeley/Getty)

(Photo: Peter Dazeley/Getty)

Canadian online pharmacies have built a good reputation among American consumers for selling U.S.-approved drugs at a steep discount. Perhaps too good. Like fashion pirates who add allure to cheap handbags by slapping fake designer labels onto them, rogue pharmaceutical vendors abroad have taken to using “Canada,” “Canadian” and the maple leaf to flog counterfeit pharmaceuticals worldwide. It’s a major thorn in the side of the legitimate Canadian industry.

This summer law-enforcement agencies in 99 countries cracked down on illegal online pharmacies, confiscating 10.1 million illicit pills with an estimated value of US$36 million and shutting down more than 13,700 websites. Such raids are frequent, but this was the first time authorities specifically targeted online storefronts posing as Canadian. Allegedly fraudulent websites, such as Canadian-neighbor-pharmacy.net, now display warnings from the U.S. District Court.

“On one site, the Canadian flags were sideways with the red stripe at the top,” says Tim Smith, general manager of the Canadian International Pharmacy Association. CIPA represents 14 member pharmacies operating more than 70 websites catering to U.S. buyers. While CIPA accredits only members that meet certain protocols like requiring prescriptions, adhering to provincial regulations and selling only approved medication, the industry remains caught up in a credibility arms race. The website Toronto-drug-store.org has been served a takedown order from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but continues to offer prescription-free sales of such drugs as Zoloft and Lipitor. It sports the seals of CIPA and the Better Business Bureau, though it is a member of neither. Rogue retailers, sometimes based as far away as Russia or India, usually ignore legal threats. Their disgruntled customers aren’t any easier to deal with.

“I can’t tell you some of the language people use in e-mails directed to us who confuse us with Canadian Pharmacy and their spammy marketing practices,” says David Zimmer, president and owner of The Canadian Pharmacy. The Winnipeg-based business boasts about 10,000 active U.S. customers, mostly seniors on fixed incomes.

Zimmer can’t put a price tag on how much the other “Canadian Pharmacy” has cost him in lost sales and hassle. But he’s unwilling to start again from scratch. A rebranding effort this month will change his website’s look, but the name will stay. “It was a difficult decision,” Zimmer says. “But for us it was about continuity for our current client base. We want to be The Canadian Pharmacy.” The maple leaf, which is now too closely associated with rogue online pharmacies, won’t figure in the new look.