A marketplace of illegal pharmaceuticals

Open to abuse: Irresponsible vendors are currently exploiting loopholes in the law to sell medicines online with misleading information. — WILLIAM GARY/The Star

PETALING JAYA: A total of 61,822 unlawful medicine advertisements were taken down from emarketplace platforms from 2019 to 2023, says the Health Ministry’s Pharmacy Enforcement Division.

“Social media platforms are not regulated by any ministry in Malaysia. However, the content on these platforms is monitored by law enforcement in Malaysia and abroad,” the division told Sunday Star.

The Pharmacy Enforcement Division said it monitors and investigates sellers on the Internet, after which action is taken, such as issuing warning letters, requesting the content be removed, or even taking to court those found to have breached the law.

It has also collaborated with social media owners such as Meta (Facebook and Instagram), Google (YouTube), X (formerly Twitter), and ByteDance (TikTok) to ensure compliance and to prevent the misuse of these platforms for trafficking illicit and illegal pharmaceutical products.

“On the ministry side, we will provide the most updated information to support their effective response to the illegal and illicit sales of pharmaceutical products on their platforms.

“Such information may include lists of illicit and illegal pharmaceutical products, a list of keywords, typical sellers, and new finds concerning the sale of these products,” the division said.

These engagements assist platform providers in understanding more about the misuse of their services for illegal activities, it added.

“This includes collaboration in content removal of unlawful activities on their platforms,” said the division.

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Advertisements for medicines are regulated under the Medicine (Advertisement and Sale) Act.

“The publication of medicine advertisements with prohibited medicinal claims or without the Medicine Advertisement Board’s approval is an offence under the Act.”

Such cases will be investigated, and action will be taken against offenders, said the division.

Those found guilty are subject to a fine not exceeding RM3,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or both, in the case of a first-time offender, under the Act.

In subsequent convictions, offenders face a fine of not more than RM5,000, a jail term not more than three years, or both.

Another law is the Control of Drugs and Cosmetics Regulations 1984, which prohibits the manufacturing, sale, supply, import, possession or administering of any product that is not registered with the Drug Control Authority under the Sale of Drugs Act.

However, the division acknowledged that enforcement actions alone will not suffice.

Consumers, it said, should also be aware of the dangers of buying medicines without proper consultation with healthcare professionals.

“As long as there is demand, these irresponsible sellers will always find ways to mislead consumers to gain maximum profits,” it added.

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The Pharmacy Enforcement Division said it has launched various awareness activities to educate people, such as the “Beware! Online Sale of Medicine” and “Scan Dulu Baru Beli” campaigns and public-private engagements, including dialogues with sellers, pharmacists, doctors, ecommerce providers, and consumers.

“Awareness messages were distributed using conventional methods such as exhibitions, lectures and roadside advertisements, as well as through online channels and social media such as Facebook and YouTube,” it said.

TikTok, when contacted by Sunday Star, said the platform has strict product listing guidelines on what can and cannot be sold on TikTok Shop.

There is a list of prohibited and unsupported items too, it said.

“This includes medicines, medical devices, certain weight loss products, supplements that include undeclared ingredients or ingredients prohibited by law, and products claiming to be effective in fat loss.

“An in-app reporting tool is available if our community believes something is being sold that violates those guidelines,” TikTok said, adding that such products would be removed from the platform.

“We will continue to detect and remove products that violate our guidelines by using a mix of proactive detection technologies and community reports,” it said.

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