Google, the internationally-known search engine and online advertising company, is being investigated by federal regulators for displaying ads for illegal pharmacies that sell prescription drugs online. These illegal pharmacies sell legitimate prescription drugs without a prescription as well as counterfeit drugs. Now a recent Securities and Exchange System filing by Google indicates that the company is setting aside $500 million in the event that they are fined for their drug advertising practices. This sum represents 22% of the company’s net income of $2.3 billion.
If Google is fined $500 million or more, it could the largest penalty of its type ever paid to the U.S. Department of Justice. This reflects the enormity of the problem of online prescription drug sales. A study by doctors at the University of California and Massachusetts General Hospital found a link between the increase in prescription drug abuse between 2000 and 2007 and the increase in the number of homes with high-speed Internet access. States with the most expansion in high-speed access had the greatest increases in emergency room admissions for prescription drug abuse.
According to Dr. Anupam Jena, one of the study’s co-authors, the prescription drugs that are most frequently purchased illegally online included narcotic painkillers like OxyContin and Percocet, ADHD medication like Ritalin, and anti-anxiety drugs like Ativan and Ambien.
Prior to the investigation, Google reported that it was trying to restrict ads from rogue pharmacies by only accepting ads from pharmacies that are certified by the U.S. National Association Boards of Pharmacy or by the Canadian International Pharmacy Association. Drug abuse experts and law enforcement officials doubt the success of Google’s efforts in this area. The Wall Street Journal reports that Google and other online advertisers have recently earned about $1 billion per year from both online pharmacies. The WSJ also reported that about 96% of online pharmacies appear to be violating pharmacy standards or laws. For example, many illegal pharmacies that appear to be in Canada actually ship drugs from China, India and other offshore locations.
How to rogue pharmacies stay in business? According to Joseph Califano, Jr., founder of Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance abuse, “It’s very hard to police these sites because they change every couple of days.” The sites are only able to stay in business because of ads displayed through online advertising services like Google AdWords. Califano warned Google about the problem in a 2008 letter, saying that he had found ads for rogue pharmacies displayed when he performed Internet searches for certain drugs. Google never responded to Califano’s letter.
One of Califano’s main concerns is that teenagers and children can obtain dangerous drugs through illegal online pharmacies. Califano believes that it is criminal that Google has profited from the sale of illegal drugs – “… it’s an example of putting profits over people. That’s what we’re talking about here. And it’s bad, really bad, because we’re talking about kids.”