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Drugstores get a check-up in Congress

In stunning testimony before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, investigative TV journalists are explaining how a 7-year-old child, a man dead for 24 years, and a neutered cat ordered drugs over the Internet.

WASHINGTON--In stunning testimony this morning before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, investigative TV journalists explained how a 7-year-old child, a man dead for 24 years, and a neutered cat ordered drugs over the Internet.

As earlier reported, the House subcommittee is weighing the benefits and risks of online pharmacies--a hot topic as Internet pharmacies become a growth market.

"In one case, we logged on to www.worldexpressrx.com and got online consultation on behalf of a cat named Tom," said Christine Behrens, a reporter with WWMT-TV in Kalamazoo, Michigan. "[One] question asked about past surgeries. The answer typed in was 'neutered December 15, 1988.' We indicated his weight was 15 pounds and his height 6 inches. Tom's ten pills of 100 mg of the anti-impotence pill Viagra were shipped after $167 was charged to a family credit card."

Behrens also ordered Viagra for her dead grandfather, who would be 98 today.

Kathy Egan, a reporter with WCAU-TV in Philadelphia, explained how a 7-year-old child used her father's credit card to obtain medicine not available in the United States. The child also obtained a controlled substance later turned over to the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Egan described the Internet as, "The 1990 version of the Wild West."

"If the Internet is the wild, Wild West," then regulatory agencies "are the new Matt Dillon," said Carla Stovall, Kansas attorney general.

Stovall pointed out that 130 men ranging from 29 to 87 years of age have died taking Viagra. Her concern is the potent combination of Viagra with other prescription medicines or life threatening health conditions.

Disclosure is also a major issue, said Stovall. Identifying the location of Internet pharmacies and who is responsible is virtually impossible on many of these Web sites, she said. Although she successfully stopped some online pharmacies from selling in Kansas, which is a good beginning, she said.

While Internet pharmacies failed to screen candidates, they did follow up. "Tom the cat received email asking how he was doing with his Viagra, and if he needed more," said Behrens.

Tom initially received three refills of the drug.

During questioning, Rep. Ron Klink (D-Pennsylvania) asked about the reporters' experiences contacting regulatory agencies about their investigation. "The agencies we talked to were concerned, but they didn't have anything in place to go ahead," said Egan. "Internet pharmacies are light years ahead of regulatory agencies," she said.

Klink pointed out how a person receiving a drug with Codeine at the post office could be put in jail by the DEA.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) expressed concern about the sign appearing on many online pharmacies: "prescription unnecessary." She also worried that Internet drugstores operating outside the United States were beyond the reach of many states, which in general are the governing bodies that regulate pharmacies.

Egan described the problem "as a shell game," making regulation much more difficult. In her experience, one company would take an order, another would process it, and yet another would ship it.

Another representative described the multistate nature of Internet drug sales--in which the pharmaceutical maker, doctor, distributor, and Net pharmacies could all be located in different states--as a perplexing problem. The representative questioned whether a federal law might be necessary, given that the regulation of Internet pharmacies might be beyond the scope of states.

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