By Gilbert M. Gaul and Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 18, 2003
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."
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.