Medications: A Cat Can Order Viagra? (cont.)

Medical experts complain that such practices expose patients to doses of drugs that, depending on their personal medical histories, could be lethal or cause them to become extremely ill.

Regulators point to the case of Robert McCutcheon, a 52-year-old Illinois man who had a family history of heart problems. Without seeking the counsel of his doctor, he ordered Viagra over the Internet. In March of last year, after drinking a few beers on the way home from work, he went to his girlfriend's house, popped a Viagra, and died of a heart attack while having sex.

Merck vigorously warns expectant mothers not to even handle its Propecia pills for fear of birth defects. But Lisa Meiners, an assistant attorney general in Missouri, was able to order the drug -- in a sting operation -- from a Texas online pharmacy despite being 26 weeks pregnant at the time. Missouri later barred the pharmacy from doing business within its borders.

Online buyers might also find themselves obtaining defective, potentially dangerous drugs. "Americans can, unwittingly, order prescription drugs from rogue web sites that appear to be American-based companies, but are actually overseas sites offering drugs that are unapproved, counterfeit, contaminated, expired, mislabeled, manufactured in unapproved facilities, or not stored or handled in a proper manner," says Sen. James Jeffords (R-Vt.), the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, and Labor.

A Cat Can Order Viagra

Government health officials are concerned that the ease with which consumers can now get prescription drugs over the Internet could lead to widespread misuse, with serious -- if not always lethal -- consequences for consumers. A reporter from Glamour magazine, for example, recently ordered a diet drug even though she indicated on the questionnaire used by one site that she weighed just 97 pounds. A Michigan reporter used her cat's name, acknowledged under "prior surgeries" that it was neutered, but successfully ordered Viagra for the feline.

"We had [the 16-year-old son of] one of our employees . . . order Viagra over the Internet and he received it," says Carla Stovall, Kansas attorney general. "Those are the kinds of things that I think concern everybody." The issue is gaining attention in Washington, where Congress and the White House are considering intervention. President Clinton has already proposed giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sweeping new powers to regulate and certify drug-selling sites. "When medications are classified as prescription drugs, it is done so for a reason," says FDA commissioner Jane Henney, MD. "These drugs have been judged to have sufficient risks that they should not be provided to patients without a health professional's involvement."

Some states have already started investigating online drug peddlers. Earlier this month, New Jersey sued eight online pharmacies selling Viagra, charging that they failed to disclose that they lacked a New Jersey license and claiming that the use of an online questionnaire to diagnose patients falls short of the state's standards. In Oregon, a doctor was recently fined and placed on probation for 10 years by that state's Board of Medical Examiners for prescribing Viagra and other drugs over the Internet to patients he never examined. Last year, Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri also went after Internet drug merchants and the National Association of Attorneys General has said it is studying the issue.