Dept. of Justice may hit Google with $500-million fine over 'rogue' online pharmacy promotion

May 13, 2011
Pharmaceutical Commerce, Pharmaceutical Commerce - May/June 2011,

Coincidentally, federally sponsored study sees a link between high-speed Internet access and online drug sales of narcotic medicines

A little over a year ago, with relatively little fanfare, Google (along with several other online search businesses) announced that it would begin restricting online search results involving prescription purchasing from unauthorized sites or offshore locations. Now we might know why it wasn’t more prominently displayed: Google might have been violating its own policy by accepting money for AdWords banner purchases, and has set aside a whopping $500 million to settle possible litigation with the Dept. of Justice, according to a p. 1 story in the May 13 Wall Street Journal.

Illicit online pharmacies are a growing problem for making drugs available to abusers, and distributing counterfeit or supposedly legal generic versions of branded drugs. Last year, Google, MSN and other search-engine companies committed to restricting banner purchases to companies that have accreditation from the VIPPS program of the National Assn. of Boards of Pharmacy. This seems to be in place at the moment, but online pharmacies that offer “no prescription needed” sales are still commonplace in the regular search results.

According to the WSJ report, an investigation has been conducted by the US Attorney’s Office in Rhode Island and FDA, although neither that office nor Google would confirm the potential settlement. Besides adopting the VIPPS program, Google had also filed a federal lawsuit last fall against individuals running allegedly illegitimate online pharmacies.

So, shut down the Internet?

Coincidentally, a new study has been published in Health Affairs that analyzed the state-by-state prevalence of drug abuse in conjunction with the growth of high-speed Internet access. According to the authors (who were funded by HHS), a 10% increase in Internet use is associated with a 1% increase in admissions to treatment centers, and a 0.3% increase in emergency-room visits for drug overdoses over the 2000-2007 period. Despite “important” limitations to the study, the authors say the study may “provide a first glimpse that growing Internet use may partly explain why US prescription drug abuse rates have risen dramatically while other substance abuse rates have not.” A skeptic would argue that this is already well known from studies of drug abusers themselves, and was one of the reasons that the Ryan Haight Act (which addresses online sales of controlled substances) was passed in 2008; nevertheless, the study adds additional ammunition to the enforcement of legal online pharmacy sales.