Google's action comes after the company was contacted by the father of a teenage boy in suburban Chicago who said his son had used Google's search engine to locate and later order Vicodin from a Web site in Florida. The father said the boy was subsequently hospitalized for drug treatment. The father, who requested that the family's name not be published, said he traced the purchase through the family computer.
"After signing my son into the juvenile psych ward of a local hospital, I went home and typed the name of the painkiller into Google," he said. "I was deluged with offers to get pills. Both the search results and banner ads were focused on procuring the drug."
Krane, the Google spokesman, said the company "takes this very seriously."
In an e-mail this week, the father wrote that he "felt good about the changes in Google's advertising policies," which have not been disclosed until now. "I believe that the changes will save lives."
Sandberg, the Google vice president, noted that Google has 150,000 advertisers, including Internet pharmacies. "Industry standards are evolving," she said. "We want to make sure that the pharmaceutical advertisers . . . adhere to those standards."
Federal regulators, who have limited authority over online advertising, are also examining how they can prod the search engines and other businesses to deal only with legitimate pharmacies.
"We're literally placing calls to the search engines trying to get a meeting going," said Peter J. Pitts, the FDA's associate commissioner for external affairs. "You can't blame them for accepting commerce. But they really haven't understood the consequences."
Citing a Washington Post series on widespread problems in the distribution system for pharmaceuticals, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations recently decided to expand its probe of online pharmacies to include the role of companies that advertise, purchase or transport illegal prescriptions.
The "investigation will focus on how easy is it for consumers, especially minors, to buy dangerous prescription drugs over the Internet, and whether those drugs being purchased are counterfeit and potentially lethal imitations of FDA-approved drugs," said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), the subcommittee's chairman.
Committee investigators are looking at FedEx, UPS and other consignment carriers used by the Web sites to ship their drugs. Susan Rosenberg, a spokeswoman for UPS, said the carrier "does not accept anything it knows to be illegal" but does not have the resources to check out every company it does business with. "With 13.5 million packages a day, it's not practical," Rosenberg said. "It's the responsibility of the shippers to abide by the law."
One problem, said Rep. James C. Greenwood, (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, is that Internet pharmacies are regulated by the states and the laws are often inconsistent or confusing. "Congress needs to give the FDA the authority and the resources to certify Internet pharmacies and to give them a seal of approval," he said.
The Senate Committee on Health, Labor, Education and Pensions, chaired by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), has scheduled a hearing for Dec. 10 to examine some of the flaws highlighted in The Post's series on the prescription drug distribution system. The hearing is expected to include an examination of Internet prescribing and the growing threat posed by counterfeit drugs.