Background: Illicit or rogue Internet pharmacies are a recognized global public health threat that have been identified as utilizing various forms of online marketing and promotion, including social media.
Objective: To assess the accessibility of creating illicit no prescription direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) online pharmacy social media marketing (eDTCA2.0) and evaluate its potential global reach.
Methods: We identified the top 4 social media platforms allowing eDTCA2.0. After determining applicable platforms (ie, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and MySpace), we created a fictitious advertisement advertising no prescription drugs online and posted it to the identified social media platforms. Each advertisement linked to a unique website URL that consisted of a site error page. Employing Web search analytics, we tracked the number of users visiting these sites and their location. We used commercially available Internet tools and services, including website hosting, domain registration, and website analytic services.
Results: Illicit online pharmacy social media content for Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace remained accessible despite highly questionable and potentially illegal content. Fictitious advertisements promoting illicit sale of drugs generated aggregate unique user traffic of 2795 visits over a 10-month period. Further, traffic to our websites originated from a number of countries, including high-income and middle-income countries, and emerging markets.
Conclusions: Our results indicate there are few barriers to entry for social media-based illicit online drug marketing. Further, illicit eDTCA2.0 has globalized outside US borders to other countries through unregulated Internet marketing.
Keywords: Internet; health policy; marketing of health services; online pharmaceutical services; pharmacies; social marketing; social media.