ONLINE PHARMACIES: Drugmaker Protests Practices
Despite protests from drug manufacturing giant Pfizer, Inc. many online pharmacies continue to dispense "lifestyle drugs" like Viagra at an increasing pace, the Wall Street Journal reports. One company, Direct Response Marketing, has already sold nearly $2.5 million worth of Viagra in its 18-month existence, and Pfizer officials believe that the anti-impotence drug is the best-selling prescription drug purchased online. Unlike CVS.com and Drugstore.com, DRM functions like many of the 500 online pharmacies, which offer a limited number of popular medications to consumers. Consumers fill out a questionnaire which is approved by a affiliated physician without every receiving a physical examination. In 1998, Pfizer lawyers aired their complaints to the Federal Trade Commission in an effort to press the issue of legal action against online pharmacies that dispense drugs without any in-person exams. A Pfizer spokesperson said, "Immediately after Viagra was first introduced in the U.S., Pfizer began calling attention to the problem of Internet sale of prescription drugs without an in-person diagnosis by a physician. Our position has always been clear: Bypassing the doctor-patient relationship is bad medicine." However, critics of the drug maker contend that if the company is really concerned with protecting consumers' health, they would block online pharmacy access to their products. It is legal for the drug makers to sell their medications to wholesalers who in turn sell the products to online pharmacies, but critics say that drug companies have ultimate control over who gets access to their medications. Some industry officials say that since Pfizer tracks the pattern of its drug sales so closely, they should be able to control the distribution to Internet pharmacies. Cynthia Culmo, who monitors Internet drug sales for the Texas Department of Health, said that if drug companies fail to use that information, "it appears to be putting money ahead of the health and well-being of consumers." In its defense, Pfizer says it does not know what percentage of Viagra is sold online, but it estimates that it is "only a small portion." The company argues that any attempt to regulate wholesalers distribution of medications would violate restraint-of-trade-laws. But FTC and anti-trust lawyers say that a drug manufacturer has every right to cut off supplies to wholesalers who they believe sell the medications to online pharmacies that improperly dispense the medication. Despite some criticism of its distribution practices, Pfizer, more than any other pharmaceutical manufacturer, has brought the issue of unethical online pharmacy practices to the forefront. FTC Attorney Richard Cleland said, "Pfizer made this issue a priority for us. None of the other drug companies had stepped forward." Pfizer also conveyed its concern to the FDA, which in recent months has begun to track nearly 100 online pharmacies (Cohen, 11/29).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.