Online Sales Spur Illegal Importing of Medicine

Online Sales Spur Illegal Importing of Medicine
Posted by FoM on January 10, 2000 at 08:25:50 PT
By Robert Pear
Source: New York Times
The federal government's seizures of imported drugs soared last year to thousands of parcels containing millions of pills as consumers turned to online drugstores based overseas for bargains, illicit substances and prescriptions they are embarrassed to seek from their physicians. Customs inspectors intercepted all sorts of drugs, including steroids, hormones, aphrodisiacs, impotency medications, anticancer pills, painkillers and tranquilizers sent from Thailand, China, Mexico, Switzerland and many other countries. 
But the shipments that they impounded are probably only a small fraction of what consumers are illegally buying from fly-by-night Web sites, many of which offer to mail drugs in unmarked envelopes with few questions asked, customs and health officials say. The United States Customs Service seized 9,725 packages with prescription drugs last year, about 4.5 times as many as in 1998, when they confiscated 2,145 packages. The number of pills and tablets impounded by the Customs Service jumped to 1.9 million, from 760,720 in 1998. Federal officials said the drugs that were seized had not been approved for use in this country, did not comply with American labeling requirements or fell below federal standards for the quality and purity of drugs. Because of controls like these, most imports of drugs from Internet suppliers are illegal, although buyers are rarely prosecuted. In an interview, Raymond W. Kelly, the commissioner of the Customs Service, said: "The Internet has given us a lot more work. We've been deluged with prescription drugs coming in from overseas. It's a major challenge to deal with this huge increase in volume." President Clinton recently announced an initiative to protect consumers buying drugs on the Internet. But his proposal dealt mainly with online pharmacies based in the United States, which would, for the first time, have to get approval from the federal government before they could sell drugs. That has left administration officials scratching their heads over what can be done to police the virtually unregulated foreign Web sites that have sprung up to cater to the American market. "That's much more difficult than domestic enforcement," said Chris Jennings, the health policy coordinator at the White House. Regulation of offshore Internet sites is tricky for the Clinton administration because Vice President Al Gore and other Democrats continually berate drug companies for charging higher prices in the United States than in other countries, and one of the main reasons consumers buy online from foreign pharmacies is to get lower prices. Other consumers turn to the Internet to get drugs that are illegal to sell here, or to get legitimate medicines like Viagra, the anti-impotency pill, without the trouble and possible embarrassment of consulting a doctor. The Food and Drug Administration advises consumers: "Don't purchase from foreign Web sites at this time. Generally it will be illegal to import the drugs bought from these sites, the risks are greater and there is very little the U.S. government can do if you get ripped off." A Web site called Drug Quest says it can, for a fee, help Americans "buy almost any drug without a prescription" from pharmacies in Mexico, the Caribbean and other parts of the world. These pharmacies sell drugs at "drastically discounted rates" and ship the merchandise discreetly so that "95 percent of their shipments arrive unmolested," says the Web site, operated by a Florida company called LMB Enterprises. Another Web site, operated by Vitality Health Products in Bangkok, Thailand, promises "prescription-free pharmaceuticals by e-mail at incredibly low prices." And it seems to have a medicine for every malady: "Hair loss? Try Minoxidil and Finasteride (Propecia). Erection problems? Try Viagra, Yohimbine and Trazodone. Aging skin? Try Retin-A and AHA creams. Poor memory, I.Q.? Try Piracetam, Hydergine and Vinpocetine. Hormone replacement? Check out testosterone & Premarin." Vitality says, "We guarantee to send your order discreetly packed, without any reference to the contents on the outside of the packet." But it says: "Be warned. Medicines sent by post are much more likely to be stolen in transit or intercepted by the authorities than other mail-order products. If your order is lost, stolen in the post or confiscated by the authorities, we guarantee to refund your money immediately." The company even has a Web page on "customs problems," which tells consumers what to do if an order is seized by the Customs Service. Thomas Falanga, a supervisory customs inspector at Kennedy International Airport in New York, said: "You can probably buy anything you want over the Internet and have it shipped to your house. We've found a big increase in prescription drugs and anabolic steroids from virtually all parts of the world." Mr. Falanga said inspectors could not possibly examine every item because more than 100 international flights arrived at Kennedy each day and most carried huge amounts of mail. Some packages carry customs declarations falsely describing their contents. Government records show, for example, that potent unapproved drugs like GBL and GHB have been labeled as wood softener or bubble bath, even though the products are promoted on the Web with claims that they can build muscles, enhance sex, reduce stress and induce sleep. When the Customs Service seizes drugs, it may send a warning to the purchaser. In rare cases, if the shipment includes a large quantity of drugs with a high potential for resale and abuse, customs agents may deliver the drugs and arrest the buyer. But Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Customs Service, said the agency usually refrained from taking action when consumers imported small amounts of prescription drugs -- up to a three-month supply -- for their own use, and the drugs posed no "unreasonable risk" to the users. "We won't arrest Granny just because she wants to get her drugs cheaper," Mr. Boyd said. A New Zealand pharmacy routinely ships drugs and hormones in parcel post letter packs, saying such envelopes attract less attention from inspectors. Another company, International Anti-Aging Systems, based on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, offers dozens of drugs including Proscar, Prozac, Viagra, tetracycline, injectable human growth hormone and "brain nutrients, or smart drugs," on the Internet. The company tells buyers that they are responsible for compliance with import requirements. Moreover, it says, buyers bear the risk of financial loss if their products are seized by the Customs Service, and consumers cannot hold the company liable for "any entrapment procedures that may be perpetrated by law enforcement and government agencies." Many foreign Web sites promote Viagra, the anti-impotence drug made by Pfizer. Andrew B. McCormick, a spokesman for Pfizer, said the company had successfully urged state pharmacy boards to shut down Web sites that sold Viagra without requiring patients to be examined first by doctors. But, he said, it is more difficult to take action against foreign Web sites. Viagra has been approved in 90 countries, but Mr. McCormick said sales in the United States exceeded those in the rest of the world combined. Federal authorities have repeatedly seized drugs sent to the United States from a Swiss pharmacy, Victoria Apotheke in Zurich, on the ground that they were unapproved or misbranded. On its Web site, the company describes itself as a fully licensed retail drugstore established in 1880. It offers "a wide range of 14,000 products available to be sent to customers all over the world," and it says it can help consumers "obtain medicines not available in your country." Debby Fry Wilson, a spokeswoman for one of the best-known online pharmacies, in Bellevue, Wash., said her company complied with all federal and state requirements. Ms. Wilson noted that state officials, using state laws, had already shut down some unlicensed online pharmacies. But, she said, "most of the illegal operators are doing their business on foreign soil." Representative Thomas J. Bliley Jr., the Virginia Republican who is chairman of the House Commerce Committee, said he was skeptical of the administration's proposal to regulate online pharmacies. "I'm reluctant to set a precedent for regulation of the Internet before the full potential of electronic commerce is understood," Mr. Bliley said. "A large number of illegitimate online pharmacies are based offshore, but the administration's proposal does not appear to address that problem." Published: January 10, 2000Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company 
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