By Gilbert M. Gaul and Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 10, 2003
The nation's largest credit card companies and shippers are being asked to explain their roles in facilitating sales of narcotics and other prescription drugs by illicit Internet pharmacies.
As part of an expanding probe of controlled substances online, the House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday asked the heads of Visa International, MasterCard International, FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service of America Inc. to detail how their firms identify and counter problem sites that use their services.
"We are particularly concerned about the role of credit card companies in the facilitation of illicit Internet pharmacy transactions," the committee chairman, W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), and the chairman of the oversight subcommittee, James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.), wrote to Visa chief executive Malcolm Williamson.
Visa spokeswoman Rhonda Bentz said the company will "work with Congress to identify an appropriate solution."
"We take the trust that cardholders have in our brand very seriously," Bentz said. "We're not going to do anything to jeopardize that."
MasterCard also said it will cooperate. "We deplore any association of MasterCard with these illegal activities," the company said, adding that it encourages cardholders to notify it of Web sites suspected of illegal sales. The company also said it will "aggressively follow up" and cut off MasterCard acceptance if necessary.
Internet sales of narcotics and other dangerous drugs with little medical supervision have exploded in recent years, The Washington Post reported in October in articles cited by the committee.
Last week, Google, the nation's largest search engine, announced that it would stop accepting advertising from rogue Internet pharmacies. That followed similar steps by Yahoo, MSN and AOL.
Yesterday, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said he plans to introduce legislation early next year to close loopholes that allow illicit Internet pharmacies to operate. "We have seen the problem of controlled substances being sold on the Internet fester for too long," Dingell said.
The House committee plans to hold hearings early next year on the issue , spokesman Ken Johnson said. "Drugs are being sold. People are dying," Johnson said. "Frankly, some new legislation is inevitable."
Peter J. Pitts, associate commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration, said yesterday that the agency plans to contact shippers and credit card companies. "This is not something the FDA can do alone," Pitts said. "We're going to reach out to as many people as we can to protect the public from these people who profit at the expense of public health."