U.S. States Target Illegal Online Pharmacies

The state of New Jersey has filed suit against eight online pharmacies located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Miami and Miami Beach, Florida; Seattle, Washington; Phoenix, Arizona and San Antonio, Texas, accusing them of selling such prescription medicines as Viagra, Propecia, and Xenical without a license.

New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act requires pharmacists and doctors to be licensed by the state’s Division of Consumer Affairs. Violators may face fines of $7,500 to $30,000 (US$).

In probing the pharmacies, investigators used aliases to make a dozen credit card drug purchases of between $100 and $300. The only requirements were to to fill out a medical history form and pay $65 for a physician’s consultation.

Feds Join In

As the volume of illegal prescription drug sales skyrockets, a growing number of illegal pharmacies are springing up to meet the needs of customers who want prescription drugs but do not want the hassle of visiting a doctor.

No one is keeping track of the sales of illegal prescriptions online, but a recent report by Forrester Research predicts that online sales through legitimate pharmacies will total $15 billion by 2004.

President Clinton recently announced plans to put a bill before the U.S. Congress that would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) new power to review and certify hundreds of prescription-filling Web sites. Those sites that continue to violate the new regulations would risk incurring $500,000 fines for each infraction.

At least one Congressman, U.S. House Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley (R-Virginia), believes the new legislation is unnecessary because selling drugs without a valid prescription is already illegal under current law. Bliley also believes that the move tramples states’ rights to enforce prescription drug laws.

States Taking Action

While the Feds are listening to testimony and debating who should be regulating online pharmacies, states are taking action and moving forward. According to Kansas Assistant Attorney General Fran Brunner, 31 states are participating in a multi-state working group to track Internet drug sales and to share ideas on how to bring legal action against the companies.

In addition to this week’s action in New Jersey, suits have been filed against online pharmacies in Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois. Michigan is also contemplating a move.

Last June, Kansas Attorney General Carla J. Stovall’s office filed five consumer protection lawsuits against companies and individuals that were illegally selling prescription drugs online. The suits alleged that prescription drugs were being prescribed and dispensed to Kansas residents by doctors and pharmacies who were not licensed to practice in Kansas.

In the Kansas case, investigators had a 16 year-old place orders for diet-drug Meridia and Viagra using his real age and his mother’s credit card. Three companies sold the minor the drugs without parental consent or a medical exam.

Brunner told the E-Commerce Times that the Attorney General’s office has settled suits with some online pharmacies and is negotiating with others. The courts issued a default judgment in a claim against Focus Medical Group and ordered the company to pay penalties of $20,000. Additionally, Senior Care was ordered to pay $10,000 in fines.

More importantly, according to Brunner, the courts have ordered the companies to stop doing business in Kansas. “Frankly, that’s what we wanted most,” Brunner said.

Big Fines

Other judges are also ordering Internet pharmacies to pay big fines. Last year, a Missouri judge ordered two online pharmacies to shut down and pay the state of Missouri $15,000 in penalties and costs. One of the pharmacies was also ordered to pay restitution to Missouri customers who purchased drugs from the pharmacy.

Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan is also asking a judge to make online pharmacies pay for illegally dispensing prescription drugs. In four cases that are still pending, Ryan is seeking a permanent injunction to stop pharmacies from illegally selling prescription drugs in Illinois.

Ryan is asking that each company be fined $50,000 for selling prescriptions illegally in Illinois with an additional $50,000 penalty for each illegal prescription filled in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act.

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