Is Regulation of Online Pharmacies Doomed to Failure?

The Clinton administration recently asked the U.S. Congress to empower the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate online pharmacies. The Administration asked Congress to appropriate $10 million (US$) for resources to do the job properly.

The move to regulate online pharmacies was sparked by reports of an estimated 400 Web sites that are allegedly filling prescriptions without valid authorizations from physicians or licensed pharmacists.

FDA Cyber Patrol

The FDA would use the funds to crack down on the many illicit online drug peddlers that allegedly are based in the United States. Offenders would be subject to a $500,000 fine per violation.

No Forwarding Address

This plan sounds fine in theory, but the FDA still faces many insurmountable obstacles cracking down on the illegal online pharmacies.

For example, unlike offline pharmacies that sell prescription drugs from brick-and-mortar locations, disqualified online pharmacies can be restarted under a different name in a matter of hours.

Moreover, it has been estimated that half of the offending sites on the FDA’s target list are outside its jurisdiction. The U.S. Customs Service reported that it intercepted 9,725 unauthorized prescriptions being sent into the U.S. last year, up from 2,145 in 1998. Who knows how many prescriptions were not detected?

Another problem for the FDA is increasing demand by Americans for bargain prices on prescription drugs. Many elderly and fixed-income patients are willing to take a chance on unknown sites if it means saving a significant amount of money.

One Element Makes Sense

There is, however, one component of the FDA’s proposed online enforcement program that does make sense to me.

The FDA says that it would use a portion of the proposed funding for a public education campaign on television and the Internet. The program would urge consumers to buy drugs only from Web sites that display such certification as the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) seal.

All the same, while a raised public awareness could only help, one would only hope that this initiative did not become another bottomless pit for taxpayer money like the “War on Drugs.”

Destined To Fail

In the end, it is my opinion that the FDA would be doomed to failure if it attempts to police the Web in the proposed manner. At the present time, the matter seems unenforceable, and until it is, the government should leave it to the consumer to choose what they will or will not buy.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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