Warnings Target Rogue Drug Sites

By Gilbert M. Gaul and Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 24, 2003

The nation's largest online pharmacy, Drugstore.com, announced yesterday that it is starting a public awareness campaign to warn consumers about the dangers of buying medications from rogue Internet sites that specialize in selling painkillers and other dangerous drugs.

"The Internet is a great tool to help consumers manage their health," said the company's chairman, Peter Neupert. "Unfortunately, there are a growing number of unscrupulous businesses using the Internet to deceive the public . . . many times without a doctor's prescription."

The Bellevue, Wash.-based company said consumers have been sold diluted, contaminated and counterfeit drugs from illegal offshore Internet pharmacies that "pose a serious threat to the public health and safety."

Neupert said Drugstore.com, with annual sales of $194 million, plans to take a leadership role on the issue and work with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy "to close the door on illegal online pharmacies."

The company's announcement comes as legitimate online pharmacies are trying to differentiate themselves from increasing numbers of domestic and offshore Web sites that deluge consumers with e-mails and advertisements for Vicodin, hydrocodone, Xanax, Valium, and other controlled substances. Many of the offshore sites offer dangerous drugs without prescriptions. Others work with middlemen who link customers with doctors who churn out thousands of prescriptions after brief telephone consultations.

Rogue sites have proliferated as consumers and cash-strapped state and local governments turn to Internet pharmacies in Canada and other countries in search of bargain drugs, said Carmen A. Catizone, executive director of the pharmacy board association. The local governments' actions add a patina of legitimacy to the purchases and this "sends the wrong signal" to owners of rogue pharmacies, Catizone said.

"They're seeing the governments saying it's okay to break the law and we're [state and federal government regulators] not going to do anything," Catizone said. "We're going backward to the snake-oil salesmen, before we had the Food and Drug Administration."

Drugstore.com said that its "Safe Shopper" public awareness campaign will aim to educate consumers about the dangers of rogue Web sites and how to identify legitimate online pharmacies. Among its guidelines:

* Avoid online pharmacies that do not list their addresses, require consumers to visit their local doctors to get a prescription, or carry a full line of prescription drugs.

* Do not purchase drugs from unlicensed and unregulated Web sites that inundate consumers with unsolicited e-mail advertisements.

* Look for the pharmacy association's seal of certification.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company