The prescription drug market is enormous and now includes millions of Americans who go online to get information about the medicines they consume. According to a May-June 2004 telephone survey of 2,200 American adults, 64% of American households contain a regular user of prescription drugs. One in four Americans (26%) has used the internet to look for information about prescription drugs.

“More Americans go online for health information than see a doctor on a typical day. Now that the cost and safety of prescription drugs have come to the forefront of policy debates, we see that significant numbers of Americans are turning to the internet to get information and explore drug purchases,” said Susannah Fox, director of research at the Pew Internet & American Life Project and author of the study, Prescription Drugs Online.

The price of prescription drugs has become an important political and policy issue in the past year. In the spring of 2004, the federal government announced changes to the Medicare system, including the publication of prescription drug prices online. In addition, there has been a recent effort in states and localities to help Americans import prescription drugs from Canada, where prices are significantly lower.

At the same time, there is strong opposition from the pharmaceutical industry, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, both of which claim that they cannot guarantee the safety of imported drugs.

This survey finds that most Americans do not fully trust the online prescription drug marketplace. Sixty-two percent of Americans think purchasing prescription drugs online is less safe than purchasing them at a local pharmacy. Twenty percent of Americans think such online purchases are as safe as local purchases. Eighteen percent of Americans responded that they did not know or that it depends on the situation.

Few Americans buy prescription drugs online:

  • Just 4% of Americans have ever purchased prescription drugs on the internet.
  • Three-quarters of online prescription drug purchasers say the last time they purchased prescription drugs online, they bought a drug for a chronic medical condition such as high blood pressure or arthritis.
  • One quarter of online prescription drug purchasers say their last purchase at an online pharmacy was for some other purpose, such as weight loss or sexual performance.
  • Nine in ten online prescription drug purchasers plan to go online to fill a prescription in the future.

    Prescription drug spam plagues many internet users – especially men:

  • 63% of internet users say they have received an unsolicited email advertising a sexual health medication such as Viagra. (71% of male internet users have received such pitches, compared to 56% of female internet users.)
  • 55% of internet users say they have received an unsolicited email advertising a prescription drug. (60% of male internet users have gotten that kind of email, compared to 50% of female internet users.)
  • 40% of internet users say they have received an unsolicited email advertising an over-the-counter drug. (49% of male internet users have been spammed about that, compared to 32% of female internet users.)

    The Pew Internet Project is a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank that explores the impact of the internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care and civic/political life. The Project aims to be an authoritative source for timely information on the internet’s growth and societal impact. The project is part of the Pew Research Center and support for the project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project’s Web site: