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A Cat Can Order Viagra?

Online prescriptions are easy to get. Do you know the risks?

A Cat Can Order Viagra continued...

"We had [the 16-year-old son of] one of our employees . . . order Viagra over the Internet and he received it," says Carla Stovall, Kansas attorney general. "Those are the kinds of things that I think concern everybody." The issue is gaining attention in Washington, where Congress and the White House are considering intervention. President Clinton has already proposed giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sweeping new powers to regulate and certify drug-selling sites. "When medications are classified as prescription drugs, it is done so for a reason," says FDA commissioner Jane Henney, MD. "These drugs have been judged to have sufficient risks that they should not be provided to patients without a health professional's involvement."

Some states have already started investigating online drug peddlers. Earlier this month, New Jersey sued eight online pharmacies selling Viagra, charging that they failed to disclose that they lacked a New Jersey license and claiming that the use of an online questionnaire to diagnose patients falls short of the state's standards. In Oregon, a doctor was recently fined and placed on probation for 10 years by that state's Board of Medical Examiners for prescribing Viagra and other drugs over the Internet to patients he never examined. Last year, Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri also went after Internet drug merchants and the National Association of Attorneys General has said it is studying the issue.

Still, Harvey Jacobs, a Washington Internet lawyer, says the federal government should not develop special regulations for online pharmacies. Instead, it should ask the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Postal Service to work harder. "Those entities now regulate rogue operations and have sufficient tools to go and shut them down," he says.

Should "Rogue Pharmacies" Be Shut Down?

So-called "rogue pharmacies'' are a pain in the side of a burgeoning legitimate online industry expected to be worth an estimated $4 billion by 2004. Debby Fry Wilson, director of government relations for drugstore.com, says her company believes the rogue sites should be shut down because they are "a potential danger to the public health."

For its part, the industry is trying to help consumers determine when a pharmacy is legitimate. The National Association of Pharmacy Boards now offers its Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites "seal of approval." To earn the mark, online pharmacies must agree to an inspection by the pharmacy board and show that all pharmacists filling prescriptions maintain the appropriate state licenses in good standing. To date just five sites have been acknowledged: cvs.com (a sponsor of WebMD); drugstore.com; familymeds.com; merck-medco.com, and planetrx.com.

Medical experts say that consumers should seek out Internet pharmacies that have earned the seal and steer clear of ordering drugs online unless their personal physician plays a role in writing the prescription. "Our challenge is to make sure that the same safety net that protects the consumer who purchases prescription drugs at the corner store is in place when the click of a mouse is used to purchase from a venue in cyberspace," says the FDA's Henney.

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