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Tuesday, 28 December, 1999, 22:16 GMT
Clinton in internet drugs crackdown

Viagra pills Websites selling drugs like Viagra have been targeted

US President Bill Clinton has proposed a series of "zero-tolerance" measures to control sales of prescription drugs on the internet.

In a crackdown on rogue pharmacies, Mr Clinton wants to introduce legislation requiring internet sites who offer sales of drugs such as Viagra to obtain federal approval or face large fines.

If approved by Congress, Mr Clinton's plan would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unprecedented new powers to review hundreds of drug-dispensing websites.

We have zero tolerance for prescription drug internet sites that ignore federal and state laws and harm patient safety and health
President Clinton
Violators would face a $500,000 fine each time they failed to comply.

The White House is also launching a campaign warning consumers about the risks of buying medicines on the internet.

Mr Clinton said his proposal would send a signal to rogue traders.

"Rogue operators pose a threat to the health of Americans," he said.

"Today we are unveiling a proposal that sends a signal that we have zero tolerance for prescription drug internet sites that ignore federal and state laws and harm patient safety and health."

The internet is largely unregulated, with governments loathe to stifle its development.

Proposed laws
Require online pharmacies to get FDA certification
$500,000 fine each time a site sells a drug to someone without a valid prescription
FDA given power to subpoena records of online sites
The regulation of drug sales in the United States is largely the responsibility of state government. The only relevant federal law is a misdemeanour which carries a fine of just $1,000.

However several states have moved against internet pharmacies.

Earlier this month Michigan ordered 10 online pharmacies to stop selling or face legal action.

Illinois filed suit against four operators in October.

But they are hampered when the patient lives in one state, the pharmacist in another and the operator in a third, said Dr. Jane Henney, FDA commissioner.

'Some semblance of safety'

"Many of the traditional safeguards that have been in place for many years are breaking down," she said.

Bill Clinton Clinton: Rogue traders pose a threat
"We have to have a way to keep some semblance of a safety net in place."

The initiative also includes a request for $10m next year to hire about 100 investigators and upgrade computers.

In many cases, legitimate online pharmacies make it easy and convenient for consumers to get the drugs they need, especially for people in rural areas and those who have trouble leaving their homes.

Aids tests

But there have been several cases where websites sent drugs out without a valid prescription or dispensed drugs that were not legally available in the United States.

The FDA recently uncovered illegal at-home Aids tests sold over the internet that did not work.

The FDA has also pointed to the case of a 52-year-old Illinois man with known episodes of chest pains and heart ailments in his family who died of a heart attack after buying Viagra over the internet.

Although there was no proof that the drug caused the man's death, the FDA said a more traditional doctor and examination could have uncovered potential health problems.

Safe buying

Last week, the FDA opened a consumer-advice web page to help patients ensure they are buying from legitimate stores.

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy is certifying legitimate online pharmacies. Customers can check its website to see if a particular web pharmacy is safe.

Even if implemented, it is unclear how these rules would affect websites operating out of other countries.

The White House also plans a public education campaign, using $250,000 of FDA money budgeted this year for a variety of other programmes.

It will include adverts on health websites and public service announcements for television telling consumers how to order drugs safely over the internet.

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See also:
23 Dec 99 |  Health
Walk-in centres 'pose risk to health'
18 Nov 99 |  Health
Patient confidentiality 'at risk on internet'
02 Nov 99 |  Health
Guidelines proposed over internet health services
27 Nov 99 |  Health
UK's first online pharmacy opens

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