ONLINE PHARMACIES: Rogue Sites Evade the Law
Last year, online pharmacies sold more than $1.9 billion worth of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, vitamins and other products, much of which was legal. But what has Justice Department and FDA officials concerned is that "no one has any idea of how much illegal activity is out there," Kai Wright points out in a Salon.com article. While the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy has certified five sites as being in compliance with state regulations for dispensing prescription medications, the board estimates that at least 200 U.S.-based Web sites sell medications without requiring a prescription. The FDA puts that number between 200 and 1,000 on a worldwide scale. Most of the "rogue sites" offer "lifestyle" drugs, including medication for male impotence, balding, dieting and skin care. Part of the problem with regulating such sites is that few consumers have logged complaints about the companies. Regulators rely on consumer complaints to spot and prosecute violators because site operators can change their locations and identities quickly. Kansas Assistant Attorney General Fran Brunner, who is working on six suits her state is waging against online pharmacies, said, "The strange thing about these cases is we don't have consumers complaining. Consumers believe they should be able to get these drugs without a prescription. And they believe they are safe." Despite this lack of consumer backlash, state attorneys general have joined forces to sue "as many rogue sites as they can round up." Besides Kansas, Illinois and Missouri have sued six, and Michigan has sent out notices of a pending suit to another 17 site operators. Congress is jumping in on the action, too, as Rep. Ron Klink (D-Pa.) introduced legislation that would require online pharmacies to disclose information about themselves on their sites. At the same time, the FDA has requested $10 million to fund new staff and other resources specifically to deal with online pharmacies. But Wright argues that "no matter what course regulators chart, one has the feeling that the effort is once again doomed by the Internet con man's ace in the hole: Ultimately, Web site operators merely have to move overseas." In January, the FDA sent out "threatening" letters to rogue operators overseas, warning them that "pharmaceuticals cannot legally enter the United States and that the company cannot, therefore, sell its product here." But because the FDA lacks regulatory authority abroad, many of these companies will persist (4/17).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.