A Los Angeles pharmacy and a pair of employees were fined $88 million by the state of California for being too lax in prescribing drugs over the Internet.
California Gov. Gray Davis announced the fines on Tuesday and said in a statement that the pharmacy violated a year-old law that makes it illegal for Internet pharmacies to fill prescriptions for patients who aren't properly examined by a licensed physician.
An 8-month-long investigation showed that Total Remedy and Prescription Center II filled more than 3,500 prescriptions over the Web that were written by doctors not licensed to practice medicine in California. Most of the prescriptions were for "lifestyle drugs" such as Propecia, a hair-loss treatment.
The pharmacists and their company, which did not return phone calls on Tuesday, have 30 days to appeal.
This is the first time California has issued citations for violations of the Internet pharmacy law signed by Davis in September 2000, said Patricia Harris, executive officer of California's State Board of Pharmacy, which licenses 35,000 pharmacists. But, she added, more are on the way.
"We have cases pending, Harris said. "We need to send a message that this is not strong medical practice."
The Internet is awash in bad medicine, say medical experts, and authorities must grapple with how to protect the public from the growing numbers of scams offering prescriptions via the Web.
Earlier this month, Canadian officials fined a site based in that country for prescribing drugs to U.S. citizens without the proper accreditation. Recently, federal investigators indicted doctors in Texas and Oklahoma for filling prescriptions over the Net without properly examining their patients first.
The majority of online pharmacies follow the rules, Harris said. Drugstore.com, CVS and Walgreens require customers to submit a written prescription from a doctor and the companies also register with the states where they fill prescriptions.
"The laws are designed to protect consumers," said David Osborne, a spokesman for California's Consumer Services Agency. "We want pharmacists from prescribing drugs over the internet without input from practitioner."