WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday morning outlined a framework for cracking down on illegal opioid sales on the internet. Hours later, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb delivered results: a list of nine online operators, running a combined 53 websites, to which it had sent formal warnings for having engaged in illegal marketing and sales of highly controlled opioid painkillers.
“The FDA is taking additional steps to protect U.S. consumers from illicit opioids by targeting the websites that illegally market them and other illicit drugs,” Gottlieb said in a statement. “The internet is virtually awash in illegal narcotics and we’re going to be taking new steps to work with legitimate internet firms to voluntarily crack down on these sales.”
The extent of the FDA’s direct enforcement authority is unclear, but the agency warned that companies that fail to correct violations outlined in the warning letters could have their products seized or face other legal action.
Among the websites cited by the FDA were many that made clear their purpose: Anonshop, Easybuyonline, XLPharmacy, and TramadolHub, the latter referring to the opioid tramadol.
Many of the websites included in the FDA’s press release were no longer active as of early Tuesday afternoon. Others with particularly conspicuous names, however — including “onlinepainpharma.com” — appeared operational.
A Twitter account that appeared to be associated with the site onlinepainpharma.com had posted in November 2017: “Online Pain @pharma is one of the largest online Rx pharmacy store (sic) for all the uncontrolled and controlled #medication which is not easily available without prescription @MedicineOnline.”
Gottlieb last week announced an “opioids summit” to take place on June 27, to which the FDA had invited numerous internet stakeholders, including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.
The agency, Gottlieb has said, hopes to work with those companies to step up their role played by U.S. tech giants in providing a platform for companies whose marketing and sales activities are seen as suspicious.
Gottlieb has also cited a Senate report noting that users seeking to purchase fentanyl online were able to do so using prepaid credit cards, money orders, and even bitcoin, and made repeated mention of the fact that the FDA employs investigators working to track such transactions on the “dark web.”
Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, respectively, pushed tech companies in February, including Google, Microsoft, Pinterest, and Yahoo, to enact new policies to crack down on the sale of illegal opioids.