Instead of Getting Wired, Some Web Sites May Get Shocked

Article excerpt

Rogue Web sites using illegal or unethical practices to sell pharmaceuticals or nutritional supplements could find their Internet wires too "hot" to handle. A recent Philadelphia seminar entitled Regulatory and Legal Issues in Pharmaceutical Sales and Direct-to-Consumer Promotion Over the Internet, conducted by International Business Communications, disclosed how regulatory agencies and organizations are tackling Internet enforcement. "Right now, there is minimal direct oversight," said Lawrence E. Liberti, MSc, R.Ph., RAC, Pharmaceutical Information Associates, Ltd. "There is a mix of sites on-line-some highly professional and some questionable, even fraudulent."

He named several watchdogs that are monitoring Web sites, including the Food & Drug Administration, Federal Trade Commission, American Medical Association, and National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Because the Internet respects no geographical boundaries, there is no specific enforcement authority for Web sites. Agencies are applying the regulations used for telephone, broadcast, and print, and sharing jurisdiction as in other media: the FDA monitors labeling and Rx drug advertising by the maker; the FTC oversees advertising for foods, OTCs, nutritional supplements, devices, and cosmetics.

Congress also is addressing the issue, with Reps. John Dingell (D, Mich.), Ron Klink (D, Pa.), Henry Waxman (D, Calif.), and Sherrod Brown (D, Ohio) calling for an overview. Since the seminar, the FTC has announced a comprehensive consumer education and law enforcement campaign, "Operation Cure.all," which targets products and treatments touted as cures for various diseases.

"Quality, not quackery, is the focus of our new campaign," said Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, in announcing the program. "Our survey of Web sites found that too many make deceptive, unproven, and fraudulent claims." She added that nearly 22.3 million Americans have sought health and medical information on-line as of December 1998, and nearly 70% of those do so before visiting the doctor.

In challenging questionable Web sites, the FTC is attempting to balance First Amendment free speech rights with consumer protection from fraud and misleading information. …