Enforcement lax toward rogue online pharmacies, Dingell and Stupak charge

Drug makers and the Bush administration have long been critical of unregulated prescription drugs sold over the Internet, but both appear to be dragging their feet on calls to clamp down on the sales.

Two Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote to Mike Leavitt, secretary of health and human services (HHS), last week questioning what they described as the administration’s lax approach to Internet drug sales.

“The inability of key agencies to provide even rudimentary controls over rogue Internet pharmacies is producing measurable harm,” wrote Reps. John Dingell (Mich.), the committee’s top Democrat, and Bart Stupak (Mich.), the ranking member of the Oversight Subcommittee.

The Democratic criticism has put the GOP-friendly industry in an awkward position. Joining Dingell and Stupak in calling for greater oversight, the industry could alienate an administration that has strongly supported it on drug reimportation and drug purchasing under the upcoming Medicare prescription-drug benefit.

Both the administration and the pharmaceutical industry have been harshly critical of imported drugs.

“The problem is becoming so pervasive that if we don’t warn people we’re going to start having bodies to count,” said Ken Johnson, senior vice president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

In a 2003 statement, the administration said imported drugs are “injurious to public health and pose a threat to the security of our nation’s drug supply.”

Dingell and Stupak have proposed going after the credit-card issuers whose cards are used to buy medications and the companies that ship the drugs, such as FedEx, UPS and DHL. They also want greater efforts to return or destroy the drugs when they enter the United States.

An HHS official did not return a phone call seeking comment on Dingell and Stupak’s letter.

PhRMA stopped short of endorsing the letter’s proposals.

“We are studying the proposals by Representatives Dingell and Stupak to crack down on rogue Internet pharmacies. We look forward to working with them and the administration on this important issue,” Johnson said.

Stupak said that drug companies profit when medications they have manufactured are illegally sold on the Internet.

“They are concerned about the fake stuff because it gives them a bad rap, but there’s also real stuff being sold on the Internet, and they think that’s OK,” he said.

“Most of the pharmaceutical contributions go to the Republican Party. They control everything right now. They’re just not interested in addressing these things. … It’s not going to happen with the Republican Party in control.”

A PhRMA spokeswoman rejected Stupak’s charge, saying the group is “adamantly opposed to rogue online pharmacies.”

A Democratic staffer on the Energy and Commerce Committee had a different theory. He said the GOP and drug industry fear cutting off the online flow of unregulated drugs to thousands of Americans because, without the cheap medications, patients using the unregulated drugs would push for lower drug prices, through reimportation or other means.

Johnson dismissed that claim, noting that the industry-backed Partnership for Prescription Assistance has helped 600,000 Americans access “free or nearly free medicines” since it launched in April.

“There are alternatives to buying drugs through unregulated Internet pharmacies, and our member companies have been promoting them aggressively,” he said.