Cheaper pills, but at what cost?

It used to exasperate me whenever my parents went to Bangkok and spent considerable time in the pharmacies there.

Dad, who suffers from acute gout, would search for colchicine (an oral drug), while mum usually returned home with tubes and tubes of a certain brand of analgesic balm.

When I tried to dissuade them - dad especially - the talk usually turned into an argument.

From "How do you know it's genuine and not fake pills?" to "Are you sure you're allowed to take this without proper prescription?", the questions flew past one main consideration: cost.

It's cheaper and he doesn't have to wait till the next doctor's appointment, argues my father.

And those reasons clearly top the list for some of the 45 heartlanders I approached this week.

Madam Chin Mei Mei, 59, a stall assistant, doesn't realise the risk she may be taking.

She says: "Aiyah, nothing can go wrong lah. I'll (carry) a sample of the pills that I take regularly, then just buy them over the counters when I travel."

Mr Mohd Zainuddin, 40, a courier serviceman, reckons it's fine too since there are instructions on the packaging.

"There's nothing to worry about. All you must do is read the instructions carefully," he says.

An increasing number of people are also turning to alternative sources such as the Internet for prescription drugs.

Take Miss Ang Yuan Yue, 31, a helper at a soya bean stall.

As she works long hours, buying birth-control pills this way is more convenient.

She explains: "I don't have time to visit the doctor and no one told me it is dangerous."

Until a week-long, worldwide crackdown which saw more than $13,000 worth of illegal medicine seized in Singapore last September.

Included in the list of drugs were weight-loss pills and birth-control tablets on sale on auction sites, discussion forums, blogs and online classified advertisements.

Says Miss Ang: "As I read the reports, I found out that taking the (contraceptive) pills (without medical supervision) could cause blood clots and high blood pressure."

Earlier this week, an alert was sent out by the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) after four patients between the ages of 30 and 78 were admitted to hospitals with dangerously low blood sugar levels.

Two of the men were taken to the hospitals unconscious; the other two confused and weak. HSA said the adverse effects were likely the result of taking illegal sexual enhancement products.

Such cases indicate that much still has to be done to educate the public on the risks of buying prescription drugs that have not been prescribed by a doctor, points out Mr Lim Hock Tuan.

The 55-year-old cabby says: "It's sad that we must wait for something to happen, someone to be seriously ill or die, before the alarm bells ring.

"It's not worth risking your life just to save a few dollars. Buying a balm or cream is different from (buying) oral medicines."

But not everyone falls under this trap of "convenience and cost" if our other random poll, conducted separately, is any indication.

Only eight out of 50 people said they would take a prescription pill even if it was not prescribed by a doctor. (See results on facing page.)

Mr Sasitharan Pillay, 65, a part-time cleaner, feels that it's better to be safe than sorry.

That's why he makes it a point to nag at his wife when she returns from her trips to Malaysia or Thailand with all kinds of medication, including those for high blood pressure.

Says Mr Pillay: "There have been times too when I just dump the whole lot into the garbage bin.

"After a while, she just stopped."

Fortunately, my dad has stopped opting for cheaper alternatives after the nagging.

As for the analgesic balm, the same can now be found here in medical halls at about the same cost.

What's best, she can buy them only when she runs out of them - instead of throwing the expired batches.

As the saying goes, that's penny wise, pound foolish.