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Date Posted: 23:27:03 09/20/03 Sat
Author: Steve
Subject: Drug storefront issue heating up
In reply to: Observer 's message, "In the media" on 12:46:08 08/04/03 Mon

Drug storefront issue heating up
A state pharmacists' group is frustrated that merchants still sell meds for less from Canada.


Three months after Florida's Board of Pharmacy declared that storefronts offering prescription drugs from Canada are illegal, not a single charge has been filed against the more than 50 storefronts operating in the state.

"We're confused and perplexed why action has not been taken," said Michael Jackson, vice president of the Florida Pharmacy Association, a trade group based in Tallahassee representing licensed pharmacists. "Somebody needs to be doing something."

But Erik Vossler, owner of a Discount Drugs of Canada storefront in Venice, said his business is providing life-saving drugs to senior citizens and others who otherwise could not afford them.

A recent study by a Canadian health agency showed that prescription drugs purchased from Canada are on average 67 percent cheaper than those bought in the United States, according to a report in The New York Times.

Vossler, who is not a licensed pharmacist, and other storefront owners contend they are not subject to state licensing because they don't dispense drugs or take money; instead, they help customers get drugs from Canadian pharmacists.

The state disagrees. On June 10, the Board of Pharmacy, an arm of the Florida Department of Health, declared that such storefronts were operating as unlicensed pharmacies, a third-degree felony in Florida.

"It's a major health concern," said Bill Parizek, spokesman for the state health department in Tallahassee. "Anyone getting drugs from unlicensed pharmacies is taking a big risk."

However, the health department does not have the statutory power to file criminal charges against the storefronts. Parizek said that charges must come from a state's attorney or other law-enforcement branch.

Health department investigators continue to gather information about the drug storefronts and hope that their evidence will persuade a prosecutor to file charges.

"We don't have a time frame," Parizek said. "We recognize that each entity has its role. We're doing what we can."

Prosecutors from the state attorney's office in Sarasota were unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Vossler, who opened his storefront last spring, said that he has received no warning or any other communication from the state and that he has no plans to shut down.

"As long as we're able to continue, I'm going to tough it out," Vossler said. "I'm barely making any money, and many of the people we help barely have enough to pay for their drugs.

"On the other side, you've got the pharmaceutical industry making billions a year in profits. The whole thing makes me sick."

Adding to the confusion are conflicting messages being sent from Washington.

In June, the Senate approved a measure that would allow pharmacists and pharmaceutical wholesalers to import cheaper drugs from Canada. That same month, the House approved legislation that would allow Americans to buy prescription drugs from other countries. Both measures are expected to be debated this fall.

On the state level, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said this week that he is considering whether to buy prescription drugs from Canada for state employees, a move that would save cash-strapped Illinois tens of millions of dollars a year, but put it in opposition to the federal Food and Drug Administration, which has decried the safety risks of buying drugs from outside the United States.

Last week, the federal Justice Department got into the fray, ordering Rx Depot to stop selling prescription drugs from Canada over the Internet. The Justice Department alleged that the Internet-based business sold unsafe, counterfeit drugs that it advertised as FDA-approved.

The debate isn't limited to legislative halls.

Conflicting feelings about buying drugs from Canada have stirred debate within the Florida Pharmacy Association.

Jackson, the group's vice president, said that his main concern is safety. But he said that some pharmacists see the issue as unfair competition. Licensed pharmacists want to be able to get drugs from Canada and sell them more cheaply to customers.

Jackson added that the drug storefronts are hurting the business of licensed pharmacies, which he says pay $1.3 billion in taxes and fees.

"Our pharmacists are reporting a flattening in business," he said. "We believe that the storefronts have something to do with that."

The state has launched a $750,000 advertising campaign to warn consumers about what it says are the dangers of buying prescription drugs from Canada and other foreign countries.

But Jackson said that the state must do more than try to convince consumers. The pharmacy association sent a letter to the Florida Department of Health on Sept. 5 expressing its concerns.

"Clearly it is not the responsibility of Florida's citizens to police illegal activity in our public health system," the letter said. "Many of our state's citizens are confused as to why the state's regulatory enforcement issues allow this to continue."

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