By Gilbert M. Gaul and Mary Pat Flaherty Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 1, 2003; Page A01
Google, the popular search engine, will stop accepting advertising from unlicensed pharmacies that have used the Internet to sell millions of doses of narcotics and prescription drugs without medical supervision, company officials said. Google's move follows decisions last month by Yahoo and by Microsoft's MSN site to stop accepting similar advertising.
The decision by Google Inc., based in Mountain View, Calif., comes as regulators and members of Congress shift their focus from the illicit pharmacies to the legitimate Web sites, credit card companies, shippers and banks that facilitate the sales. Three congressional committees are looking into the issue.
"These legitimate businesses are an important but faceless part of the supply chain for these dangerous drugs," said Carmen Catizone, executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, which has been lobbying Google and other search engines to stop accepting advertising from rogue Web sites. "If the government is serious, it has to look at these businesses."
Illegal Internet pharmacies have become a virtually unregulated pipeline for highly addictive painkillers, tranquilizers and anti-depressants that have resulted in overdoses and deaths. Search engines are littered with advertisements for the rogue Web sites. Customers type in a drug name, such as Vicodin, and they are immediately linked to an array of Web sites.
Health care represented about 5 percent of total online advertising sales in October, according to the California research firm Nielsen/NetRatings. No one knows how many of the sales come from the rogue sites. Unlicensed pharmacies selling narcotics and other dangerous drugs pay Internet search engines such as Google and Yahoo to link their advertisements to keywords typed in by people who use the search engines. The search engines say the revenue is a small part of their overall advertising business.
David Krane, a spokesman for Google, said the search engine will start using a third-party company to weed out rogue pharmacies that advertise on its site. Google also will ban the names of certain controlled drugs as keywords in its search-related advertising.
"The effect is that those words won't appear in our advertising," said Sheryl Sandberg, vice president of global sales and operations for Google. "It won't say 'Buy Vicodin here,' " she said, citing the powerful painkiller.
America Online Inc. said it began restricting those sales approximately two years ago. On a parallel track, several congressional committees are stepping up their efforts to examine the roles played by Visa International, MasterCard Inc., FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. in the Internet sales, members and staff said.
In a Nov. 13 letter to the General Accounting Office, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) requested that the investigative arm of Congress undertake a wide-ranging probe of the prescription drug supply chain in the United States. In an interview, Dingell expressed frustration with the slow pace of federal regulators in attacking the Internet problem. He specifically cited the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Customs and Border Protection division of the Department of Homeland Security.
"It is growing exponentially because the regulatory agencies charged with enforcement have not applied adequate resources, nor have they approached the issue systematically," he said. "DEA, FDA and Customs must find those resources and change their policies, as well as have a nice chat with the various players enabling these illegal transactions -- specifically, the consignment carriers and credit card companies whose logos are plastered all over the Web sites."