The Star-Ledger

Curb On Internet Drug Sales Advances

Senate panel clears bill despite outcry from consumer groups

The Star-Ledger — Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Star-Ledger Staff

New Jersey would ban the sale of prescription drugs from Internet pharmacies based in Canada and Europe under a bill a Senate committee passed yesterday that is already under fire from consumer groups.

The bill places tighter restrictions on the entire electronic pharmacy industry to "separate the responsible e-pharmacies from the con artists," said state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the bill's sponsor. But in doing so, the legislation requires that all such companies be based in the United States, effectively banning online international drug sales.

"Under FDA guidelines, we will not be taking in drugs from Canada or other countries," Sarlo said, referring to a recent Food and Drug Administration report that concluded drug imports pose significant health risks if safety standards are not set.

Sarlo acknowledged that his bill also protects the interests of many of the pharmaceutical companies that make up much of New Jersey's economy.

"The pharmaceutical industry is an important part of the economy, and as legislators, we need to ensure that part of our economy remains viable and strong," he said.

The bill (S-1231), which passed the Senate Commerce Committee, 4-0, has drawn criticism from consumer groups.

"New Jersey is the pharmaceutical capital of the world. We should be first to ensure consumers can access affordable drugs," said Dena Mottola, executive director of the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group. "But instead, we are considering regressive policies while other states and Congress and move ahead with reimportation."

A recent study by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office found prices of prescription drugs to be 35 percent to 55 percent lower in Canada than in the United States.

A spokesman for AARP, the senior citizens advocacy group, said a study released last year showed New Jersey, through its federally subsidized Medicaid program, paid far more for prescription drugs, on average, than any other state.

"It would seem to me the passing of a bill that explicitly protects pharmaceutical companies by restricting the free marketplace ... is a prime example of the state kowtowing to the pharmaceutical industry to the detriment of the taxpayers," said Doug Johnston, a lobbyist for AARP.

"More people have been hurt by Vioxx than by reimported drugs," said Staci Berger, the political and legislative director for New Jersey Citizen Action, a coalition of labor and consumer organizations.

Vioxx is the arthritis pain medication that was recently pulled from the market because it has been linked to an increase in heart attacks and strokes.

Berger cited a report Citizen Action released in 2003 which said drug companies had donated $2 million to state legislators during the previous four years as proof the industry wields vast political influence in the state.

But Sarlo said the bill is written with consumers in mind. In addition to this bill, he introduced two others after law enforcement authorities in Bergen County exposed a thriving black market trade in prescription drug sales.

"Unscrupulous Internet vendors are taking advantage of the high cost of prescription drugs and preying on seniors and others on fixed incomes who may be tempted by e-mail offers that are just too good to be true," Sarlo said.

The bill would require e-pharmacies doing business in New Jersey to be registered and to disclose the names and license numbers of pharmacists on their payrolls. The companies must be able to show that doctors who provided e-prescriptions had performed appropriate physical examinations and were available for follow-up care, according to the bill.

Online pharmacies that violate the law could face fines of $25,000; individual pharmacists could be fined $5,000.

The bill needs the support of the full Senate and Assembly as well as acting Gov. Richard Codey to become law. Codey's office did not return a call for comment.

If the bill becomes law, New Jersey would be bucking a trend. Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Rhode Island and Wisconsin have taken steps to legalize or help promote the purchase of drugs from international online companies; Nevada and Oklahoma are considering it.

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