INTERNET Rx: U.S., Thai Officials Shut Down Web Sites
Federal officials announced yesterday that they had, for the first time, shut down foreign online pharmacies involved in the "fast-growing business of selling prescription drugs over the Internet to American consumers," the New York Times reports. The U.S. Customs Service joined Thai government officials in "raiding online pharmacies based in Thailand, which officials say is a major overseas source of powerful steroids, tranquilizers and other drugs," which can be purchased in the U.S. only with a prescription. "Many of these Internet pharmacies are fly-by-night operations set up overseas to avoid U.S. law," Raymond Kelly, the commissioner of the Customs Service, said. He added, "They have little regard for patient safety." In December, President Clinton asked Congress to regulate sales of drugs on the Web, but his proposals focused on sales by U.S. companies and not on foreign online pharmacies. Foreign companies "may pose bigger problems" because they are less likely to require a physician's prescription.
During the raids, officials seized 20 computers, 245 parcels "ready for shipment" and more than 2.5 million doses of drug products. The confiscated drugs included anabolic steroids, Valium, Viagra, fen-phen, Tylenol with codeine, the tranquilizer Xanax and the "date rape" drug Rohypnol. A main target of the Thai raids was a company named Vitality Health Products in Bangkok, "whose Web site promised 'prescription-free pharmaceuticals by e-mail at incredibly low prices.'" Investigators at the Customs Service office in Albany, N.Y., said the agency had "intercepted many drug shipments from Vitality, and the Albany office is leading the American side of the investigation, with computer experts from the 'cybersmuggling center' of the Customs Service in Fairfax, Va." Officials noted that 80% of the customers found in Thai computer data are in the U.S. Thomas Virgilio, head of the Customs Service office in Albany, said of the arrests, "These are not major smugglers, but they generally know what they're doing is illegal" (Pear, 3/21).