Ten Individuals Indicted for Alleged Illegal Online Sales of Prescription Drugs
Federal officials announced Wednesday that a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., has returned a 108-count indictment against 10 people, including several doctors and pharmacists, and three companies for allegedly illegally selling controlled substances over the Internet, the Washington Post reports. According to the indictment, which was unsealed Wednesday, when customers ordered drugs online, they could choose the type, quantity and dosage. Customers received the drugs without ever seeing a doctor in person, and the defendants allegedly distributed the drugs without performing mental or physical exams, getting patient histories or monitoring patient responses (Markon, Washington Post, 12/4). In addition, when customers filled out an online medical questionnaire, the questionnaire "provided default answers that, if left unchanged, 'qualified' customers to receive drugs," according to the indictment. The indictment alleges that the defendants sold nearly 5.9 million doses of drugs -- mainly weight loss medications such as Bontril, Ionamin, Phentermine, Adipex and Meridia -- through Web sites between December 1998 and October 2001, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports (Cooper, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 12/4). The defendants face charges of money laundering and selling diet drugs and the impotence drug Viagra with misleading labels, the New York Times reports (New York Times, 12/4). They also face the possible forfeiture of more than $125 million in earnings from the illegal sales, the AP/Wall Street Journal reports (AP/Wall Street Journal, 12/4). In addition, Vineet Chhabra, owner of the businesses that operated the Web sites, faces a charge of operating a continuing criminal enterprise, which carries a 20-year mandatory prison term, according to the Times (New York Times, 12/4). The indictment stems from a "complex investigation" that lasted more than two years and was overseen by the Justice Department's Office of Consumer Litigation, the Post reports (Markon, Washington Post, 12/4). The FDA, FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration also were involved in the case, the AP/Journal reports (AP/Wall Street Journal, 12/4).
According to the Post, "little notice or meaningful oversight" and "gaps in state and federal regulations" of the Internet have allowed "[t]ens of million of pills [to] flow each year from rogue online pharmacies to customers nationwide" (Markan, Washington Post, 12/4). "Drug trafficking in cyberspace is just as harmful to public safety as drug trafficking on street corners," U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty, said, adding, "The advent of the Internet does not mean doctors and pharmacists can bypass rules concerning the dispensing of prescription drugs" (AP/Wall Street Journal, 12/4). Sean Ellsworth, an attorney for Chhabra, said that Chhabra's companies dispensed drugs only after a doctor had reviewed each patient's information and that Chhabra is innocent of the charges (New York Times, 12/4).
In related news, Virginia-based Healthcare Distribution Management Association and Florida-based Pharmaceutical Distributors Association on Wednesday issued guidelines, calling for "toughening requirements" for drug wholesalers in order to combat counterfeit medications and criminal activities in the U.S. drug distribution system, the Washington Post reports. Both groups, which represent drug wholesalers, called for drug wholesalers to increase their scrutiny of prior sales records, especially when an invoice shows three prior sales; more uniform state licensing of wholesalers; better inspections; and improved record keeping so that a drug's path from manufacturer to patient can be better known. The HDMA, which represents larger drug wholesalers, also called for states to inspect a wholesaler applicant's site before issuing a license, as well as for more extensive sales histories of high-priced drugs that are "particularly attractive to counterfeiters," the Post reports. Both the HDMA and the PDA, which represents smaller wholesalers, said that the FDA should adopt their guidelines as a formal "guidance," which would reduce drug-distribution problems. Sal Ricciardi, president of the PDA, said, "Under these guidelines, wholesalers can better determine who to -- and not to -- do business with." FDA Associate Commissioner William Hubbard said that the PDA recommendations are "a step forward. In most cases, they embody the kinds of questions that we believe wholesalers should be asking of their suppliers and the kinds of requirements that wholesalers should be imposing on people" (Flaherty/Gaul, Washington Post, 12/4).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.