Some UK online pharmacies are selling high-risk prescription drugs based on online questionnaires, a BBC investigation has found. The news organisation was able to buy over 1,600 pills from 20 pharmacies without challenge, raising concerns over the level of regulation these companies face.

The BBC found that unnamed prescription-only drugs including painkillers anti-anxiety medication and benzodiazepines (a depressant drug group including Valium) were available by providing false information and without the need for a video consultation or medical records.

Online pharmacies in the UK are regulated by the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) and are unable to prescribe drugs without approval from a qualified pharmacist. This should in theory make these sites safe, but it also allows them to operate without heavy oversight.

The GPhC gives guidance, and is able to take regulatory action should breaches be deemed dangerous enough, but pharmacist and former chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Thorrun Govind told the BBC that it is vague, leading to varying degrees of compliance by online pharmacies.

UK online pharmacies also hit the headlines last year when they were found to be distributing diabetes drug Ozempic off-label for weight loss despite the National Health Service facing shortages for patients with the intended condition.

This problem is far from exclusive to the UK, however. US online pharmacies were also found to prescribe Ozempic-like peptide drugs for weight loss last year, often without any medical checks or need to confirm the patient’s weight.

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By GlobalData

Online pharmacies are big business, with GlobalData estimating that the online health and beauty market (including over-the-counter and prescription drugs) will reach over £7bn ($8.9bn) in the UK by 2027.

GlobalData is the parent company of Pharmaceutical Technology.

Despite the concerns raised by this investigation, consumers and experts do not seem overly worried by the apparent lack of oversight. A GlobalData analysis of social media posts by select experts in the sector shows that over the last year, posts relating to regulation did not make it to the top ten most discussed themes, crowded out by economic matters.

 Our signals coverage is powered by GlobalData’s Thematic Engine, which tags millions of data items across six alternative datasets — patents, jobs, deals, company filings, social media mentions and news — to themes, sectors and companies. These signals enhance our predictive capabilities, helping us to identify the most disruptive threats across each of the sectors we cover and the companies best placed to succeed.