Prescription drugs easily purchased online: study

NEW YORK Wed Jul 9, 2008 3:31pm EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Despite new efforts to regulate Internet pharmacies, 85 percent of sites selling controlled drugs do not require a prescription, researchers reported on Wednesday.

Most orders filled by the 365 Internet pharmacies examined were for controlled substances, especially benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium, according to the report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York.

Researchers for CASA, which advocates against substance abuse, used search engines to find sites that sold certain controlled drugs. Dispensing controlled medication to patients without a doctor's prescription is illegal.

It is difficult to quantify how much these sites earn from prescription sales or determine how often they are used, said the center's chairman, Joseph Califano. One of the main problems is that such sites frequently open up for a short time then re-open under a different name.

Still, teen surveys and focus groups with college students suggest many obtain prescription drugs through the Internet.

"The Internet is a pharmaceutical candy store for teenagers and college students," Califano, a former U.S. health secretary, said in a telephone interview.

"In the past few years, there has been a tripling of 12- to 17-year-olds that abuse prescription drugs. We know a lot of them get them over the Internet," he said.

Just two of the 365 sites were certified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, a professional organization representing the all state boards of pharmacy, the study showed. Of the sites not requiring prescriptions to buy controlled substances, 42 percent clearly stated that no prescription was needed.

The CASA report recommended the that United States negotiate treaties with other governments to shut down Internet trafficking of prescription drugs.

It also called on Internet search engines like Yahoo Inc, Google Inc and Microsoft Corp's MSN.com to block advertisements from unlicensed and uncertified online pharmacies.

An estimated 48 million people age 12 and older have abused prescription drugs in their lifetime, according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In the past two years, eight states have passed laws regulating Internet pharmacies. In April, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would require more stringent regulation of online pharmacies. It is now awaiting action in the House of Representatives.

"We know of at least 18 people that have died due to overdoses from drugs purchased online through these rogue pharmacies and even more who have entered rehabilitation or suffered injuries due to these drugs," California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a statement.

"Our Internet pharmacy legislation has passed the Senate. It's time for the House to take action and pass this important bill," she said.

(Editing by Maggie Fox and Vicki Allen)