Health and prevention

Ordering medicines from abroad – be careful!

INFORMATION
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Be careful with medicines from the internet.

Buying medicines abroad because the euro has fallen could have disagreeable consequences. If you order illegal medicines, you are putting yourself at risk and may get into trouble with the federal authorities.

The Federal Supreme Court reiterated its position in a ruling in September 2015: under the Therapeutic Products Act, non-prescription medicines may only be ordered by mail if a doctor's prescription is issued in advance. For a doctor to issue a prescription, they must know the patient and their state of health. It is only possible to have the interaction required for a prescription if doctor and patient know each other and are in contact with each other. A health questionnaire and the mere possibility of making contact are not sufficient. Almost one package in ten controlled by customs contains substances harmful to health or unlawful doping agents. The lawsuit was brought by Swissmedic (the Swiss Agency for Therapeutic Products) and PharmaSuisse (the Association of Swiss Pharmacists), who were mainly defending their own interests.

Key Q&A

Is there a mail order pharmacy where I can order my medicines without worrying?
Mail order of pharmaceuticals is essentially forbidden in Switzerland. However, the relevant cantonal authorities may grant exceptional permission, subject to certain conditions. In any event, private individuals may only import pharmaceuticals for themselves in small quantities (roughly enough for one month). The import of larger quantities is prohibited.

Why do I need a prescription when ordering from a mail order pharmacy, even for non-prescription medicines?
This ensures that there is a proper consultation before the order is placed.

What are the signs that I should be on the alert?
You should always be suspicious of offers on the internet, especially when no prescription is required. There are more tips on www.swissmedic.ch/illegal in the “Guideline on medicines and the Internet”.

How can I check if a medicine is authorised in Switzerland?
This can be seen from the Swissmedic logo in a circle on the packaging. Also, authorised medicines and information on them can be found at www.swissmedicinfo.ch or on the website of the independent HealthCare Management Group mymedi.ch (in German only).

What are the dangers if I order myself medicines that are not authorised in Switzerland?
There are hundreds of fake, low-quality and ineffective medicines and prescription pharmaceuticals on offer on the internet from all over the world with no prescription required. Buying medicines online can be very dangerous for your health. The risks include ineffectiveness, but also serious side effects and toxic effects due to undeclared substances.

Are medicines that are clearly known to be dangerous available on the internet?
One example are the supposedly purely herbal Asian slimming products containing sibutramine; this is a chemical that was withdrawn from the legal market worldwide a few years ago, due to its severe psychological side effects and cardiovascular issues.

Where are illegal medicines sent from?
Illegal medicines mainly come from India, China and European countries, where they are repackaged to disguise their origin. Many doping substances seized, for example, are dispatched from Greece.

Am I committing an offence if I order illegal medicines?
If imports of medicines exceed one month's supply, import is forbidden and the package will be stopped at customs. Once the goods have been blocked at customs, Swissmedic starts administrative proceedings. These normally result in the medicines being destroyed.

The only charge made is for the work involved, but from experience the costs of the proceedings are at least 300 francs. This has to be paid by the person in Switzerland who placed the order. Repeat offences or importing for resale may result in the person placing the order facing criminal prosecution.

What are the fake medicines most commonly found in Switzerland?
Most fakes are illegally imported lifestyle products such as erectile stimulants or slimming agents. To date, no fake pharmaceuticals have yet been found in legal distribution channels in Switzerland (pharmacies, druggists, medical practices).

As the agency for authorising therapeutic products, Swissmedic bears considerable responsibility for recognising severe side effects, for example. At the same time there is pressure from the pharmaceutical industry for authorisations to be quick and there are personal connections between the industry and the experts at Swissmedic. As a government body, Swissmedic has to check for all medicines that the benefits outweigh the risks. That's the only way in law that medicines can be considered “effective”. Felix Schneuwly, health expert at comparis.ch, agrees that the practice is vulnerable to mistakes and involves major risks for patients. He also sees another problem in the responsibility of pharmacists and doctors. “Patients always rely on the expertise of the person writing the prescription, the doctor or pharmacist, who often does so knowing full well what the side effects may be. But they can never be held responsible, not even in cases like the contraceptive pill Yasmin, where there is evidence that the product can cause severe harm.” It's too easy in such cases to leave the ball in the court of the authorisation agencies or the pharma companies, but doctors and pharmacists have to react too, says Mr Schneuwly.