High cost of prescription drugs driving consumers to flea markets for medicine

Americans are struggling with medical bills and the cost of necessary medicine. Many don't have health insurance or the luxury to take time off work to see a doctor to get a needed prescription.

HOUSTON – Americans are struggling with medical bills and the cost of necessary medicine. Many don't have health insurance or the luxury to take time off work to see a doctor to get a needed prescription.

It's why some consumers are turning to an unlikely place to get the drugs they think they need.

Where did KPRC Channel 2 find prescription drugs for sale with no prescription needed?

Consumer expert Amy Davis received a tip that people were buying antibiotics from a vendor at the White Elephant Flea Market in Channelview. She sent a photographer inside, wearing a hidden camera.

It didn’t take long to find the booth selling herbs and all types of medicines. The photographer asked the woman behind the counter if she had anything for an ear infection. She offered him 10 tablets of ampicillin (500 milligrams) for $10. He also purchased 20 tablets of amoxicillin (500 milligrams) for a sore throat for $10, 20 tablets of tetracycline for acne for $10 and 2 Viagra tablets for $10 each.

By comparison, we could get 56 tablets of tetracycline at Walmart for $141. It’s $2 cheaper per tablet at the flea market.

Who is allowed to sell or dispense prescription drugs?

According to Chapter 483 of the Texas Health & Safety Code, only licensed pharmacies and doctors are allowed to sell and dispense prescription medication. It is even illegal for an individual to possess a prescription drug without orders from a doctor.

Channel 2 could not find any agency actually enforcing this law. The Houston division of the Drug Enforcement Agency is primarily concerned with dangerous narcotics like opioids. The Texas Board of Pharmacy said since the sellers at the flea market are not licensed pharmacists, they are not regulated by the board.

What is the harm in taking prescription drugs without a prescription?

“The real problem is, you have no idea what's in these medicines," said Associate Special Agent in Charge Jefferey T. Scott of the Houston division of the DEA.

The drugs Channel 2 purchased were in packages that said they were made in El Salvador, where drug manufacturers are not held to the same standards as companies in the United States. They may not have been inspected at all.

Prescription medication requires a doctor’s supervision because of side effects and problems that may arise if you are taking another medication. A flea market vendor wouldn’t know your blood pressure or medical history.

Tetracycline can cause kidney damage if the drug is exposed to the heat or if it breaks down after it expires. If a pregnant woman takes it, tetracycline can cause the teeth of her child to be permanently stained brown. If someone on blood pressure medication takes Viagra, that person could have a heart attack.

Our photographer wearing a hidden camera didn't get any of those warnings.

The other problem with people taking prescription antibiotics without a doctor’s prescription is that they can become resistant to those drugs. Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them or taking antibiotics but not completing a full cycle can train bacteria in your body to become tolerant of some drugs. When you need it later to stop the spread of bacteria or infection, they will not work.

Dr. Larissa Grigoryan, of Baylor College of Medicine, and Dr. Barbara Trautner, of Baylor, the Houston VA Hospital and iQuest, are studying the problem of nonprescription antibiotic use. They discovered it seems to be a prevalent and understudied public health problem in the United States.

“Roughly every couple of weeks, I will see a patient that has a bacteria that we can't kill,” Trautner said.

Aside from drugs purchased at flea markets and convenience stores, families using leftover or unused prescribed medication for one family member on another one is also a problem.

What is in the drugs Channel 2 purchased at the flea market?

Channel 2 took the drugs to ExperTox, a forensic drug testing lab in Deer Park, to find out what is in them.

“They are very potent,” said ExperTox owner Dr. Ernest Lykissa, who confirmed these antibiotics are what the vendors said they are and the correct strengths.

But Lykissa said test results show elevated levels of metals like magnesium in the tetracycline and ampicillin. He said there were elevated levels of magnesium and aluminum in the Viagra that he said would cause joint pain.

When Channel 2 called the vendors at the booth selling the drugs, a woman denied that they sell prescription medications. She claimed she would call Davis back, but she never did.

Grigoryan said she thinks solving the problem of nonprescription use of antibiotic drugs starts with educating the consumer, not arresting all the people selling the drugs illegally.

“People will always be able to find the drugs if they want them," Grigoryan said.

About the Author:

Passionate consumer advocate, mom of 3, addicted to coffee, hairspray and pastries.