FDA wants money to fight illegal Internet drug sales

The Food and Drug Administration plans to ask Congress for $10 million to strengthen its computer capabilities and beef up its investigative force to crack down on illegal prescription drug sales via the Internet.

The agency is investigating 200 World Wide Web sites it suspects of illegally selling prescription drugs and medical devices. There may be more than 1,500 other Web sites violating federal and state laws that govern drug sales, said Jeffrey Shuren, a medical officer in the FDA's policy office.

With help from better computers and additional operators and analysts, FDA investigators plan to better monitor the Internet and track down Web site operators who illegally sell drugs, Shuren said. The FDA's budget request for 2001 will include $10 million for buying computer equipment and hiring personnel. The request will be sent to Congress in February as part of President Bill Clinton's 2001 federal budget.

Web site operators often string together complex organizations, Shuren said. A Web site may be operated in one state in cooperation with health care practitioners in a second state and a pharmacy in a third state, with consumers scattered around the world, he said. One operator also can run multiple Web sites.

Although Internet drug sales are believed to be increasing rapidly, the FDA does not have a good estimate of the volume of illegal sales, Shuren said. "We have to do a lot of investigating," he said.

The FDA is concerned about sales of unapproved drugs; drugs that have not been tested; and contaminated, out-of-date or counterfeit drugs. The agency also wants to stop drug sales based on fraudulent claims, sales of prescription drugs without prescriptions and sales of prescription drugs based on customers' responses to questionnaires.

Clinton has called for new federal requirements that would force Internet pharmacies to comply with state and federal laws, and penalties of $500,000 per violation for illegal prescription drug sales.

In a statement released today, White House officials said Internet medical sales could be a boon to consumers, including those in rural areas and those who cannot leave their homes. But safe use of the Internet is threatened by fraudulent Internet pharmacies.

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