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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.

Until that safety net is in place, it's up to the individual consumer to observe caution. The responsible sites require and verify a prescription. (See Online, No Need to Wait in Line) Those that don't, undermine the medical supervision that protects you from the potential dangers inherent in most drugs.

Michael D. Towle is based in Chantilly, Va., and writes regularly on health and legal issues for WebMd.

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