Drugs online: a new danger

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Regulation is too slow

Ordering from rogue sites is dangerous -- but is it illegal? While experts disagree about whether a consumer is breaking the law by ordering nonaddictive drugs like Viagra, it's unlikely that the government will be looking to prosecute the buyer. Instead, state authorities are trying to crack down on the sellers. It's a frustrating process. Kansas, for example, carried out a sting operation against six Web sites, with the help of a 16-year-old boy who ordered prescription medicines using his real age. "We were unpleasantly surprised to find he was able to order Viagra and Xenical," says Kansas state Attorney General Carla Stovall. "Both drugs were delivered." The state filed lawsuits against the six companies, but Stovall admits that her actions have barely made a dent in the illegal pharmaceutical trade. "All we can do is stop these sites from operating in Kansas," says Stovall. "I can't stop them in Missouri or Colorado or North Dakota. By the time Missouri looks at them, they may have changed their name."

The federal government is starting to help with enforcement. Last summer, for example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settled a lawsuit against a group of online pharmacies accused of false advertising. One of the companies, Focus Medical Group, billed itself as a "full-service clinic with a full-time staff dealing with the treatment of sexual dysfunction" that dispensed drugs like Viagra. In fact, according to the FTC, there was no clinic, and the firm's "network" of physicians consisted of one doctor.

The U.S. Customs Service is also trying to stop illegal pharmaceuticals from entering the country. But the rogue pharmacies are savvy at getting their goods past authorities. "Sometimes they'll be shipped in a brown-paper wrapper with something like Joe's Gift Shop as a return address," says Tom McGinnis, director of pharmacy affairs at the FDA. American officials have had little success at closing down foreign companies, since the U.S. government has no jurisdiction overseas.

What's being done

Last year, Congress considered the Internet Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act, which would require online pharmacies to disclose their addresses and phone numbers, along with a list of states where they are licensed to do business. The measure would also allow states to win nationwide injunctions against illegal Web sites. Unfortunately, the congressional session ended without its passage.

Supporters are hoping that the current congressional session will be different -- and they warn that the consequences could be dire if legislation does not pass this year. "Rogue sites are reinventing back-alley drug dealing," says former Pennsylvania Representative Ron Klink, one of the bill's original sponsors who lost his seat when he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate last year. "If we allow this wild, wild west of drug sales to continue, we might as well throw the whole regulatory system out the window."--Barry Yeoman

 

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