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Ministry welcomes internet offences conviction

Ministry of Health welcomes internet offences conviction

The Ministry of Health says the conviction of an Auckland pharmacist and his company sends a clear message to anyone contemplating the sale of prescription medicines by the internet without a bona fide doctor consultation and prescription.

Pharmacist Kerry Donald Bell and I Chemist Ltd pleaded guilty in the Auckland District Court to almost 100 breaches of the Medicines Act 1981. Bell is the director of I Chemist Ltd.

Bell and I Chemist were sentenced and fined today, and ordered to pay more than $50,000. This includes $20,000 in costs to the Ministry of Health and court costs of $1300 each. Bell was also ordered to forfeit the medicines seized by the Ministry.

Ministry spokesman Peter Pratt today welcomed the conviction, the result of more than two years' work by Medsafe, the Ministry's medicines and medical devices safety authority. He described the penalty as one of the heaviest ever imposed under the Medicines Act.

``This prosecution is New Zealand's first against an internet website based in this country selling prescription medicines to the public both here and overseas,'' he said.

``It has taken more than two years to investigate this multi-million dollar operation and bring it to court. We believe it will be of great interest to other countries struggling to come to terms with similar problems.

``It should serve as a warning that the Ministry does take breaches of advertising and other requirements of the Medicines Act very seriously indeed.

``The public should be aware that websites offering prescription medicines for sale without a doctor's prescription are breaking the law, and people could unwittingly be in breach of the law by having prescription medicines in their possession, which have not been prescribed for them by a NZ registered doctor.

``This is also a timely reminder for New Zealanders that the sale of prescription medicines direct to the consumer without the normal prescription or the knowledge and input of a patient's doctor is a risky business.''

The charges against Bell and I Chemist Ltd included: selling prescription medicines by retail from premises that were neither a pharmacy nor a hospital; selling prescription medicines by retail without a registered medical practitioner's prescription; advertising a medicine for an unapproved use and advertising prescription medicines on the website without the mandatory required information.

Mr Pratt said the prosecutions highlight the fact that internet advertising is not exempt from Medicines Act requirements.

``Advertisers of medicines should know that overstepping the mark will not be tolerated. We have checks and balances in place for a reason -- to protect the public. In the case of this internet pharmacy, those checks and balances were missing, starting with the lack of a doctor's consultation, the lack of a prescription and the lack of required information consumers should have about such things as the side-effects of medicines.''

Mr Pratt said any convictions against pharmacists are reported by the Ministry to the Pharmaceutical Society, which is able to take disciplinary action.

Background Bell operated the internet sites,, and He sold large quantities of prescription medicines by retail from these internet sites, using the New Zealand dollar currency.

As the result of an initial internet investigation by the Ministry of Health, a new regulation, 44C, was gazetted on 3 November 2000. This clarified the intent of the export of prescription medicines [section 33(b)] of the Medicines Act 1981 in prohibiting the export of prescription medicines of retail sale without a New Zealand prescription.

With Regulation 44C the Government waived the usual 28-day period following gazetting as they agreed with the Ministry of Health that selling prescription medicines direct to consumers is dangerous.

Regulation 44C states: "No person may export a prescription medicine in the course or for the purpose of retail sale, otherwise than under a prescription given by a practitioner, a registered midwife or a designated prescriber".

A prescription has always been a legal requirement when providing prescription medicines to New Zealanders. This means a pharmacist can only supply prescription medicines by retail after getting a prescription by a New Zealand registered practitioner.

The importance of the prescription is that it ensures the patient is seen by an appropriate health professional, and the medicines are prescribed taking into account the patient's condition, medical history and circumstances. In some situations, ongoing examination of the patient is necessary to ensure the treatment is being used safely and appropriately. It enables considerations such as contraindications, concurrent medical conditions and medications, and side-effects to be considered and explained. The system operated by Bell and I Chemist Ltd did not ensure this occurred.

In March 2001, the Medical Council of New Zealand issued "Guidelines for Doctors Using the Internet" to protect the safety of the patient, maintain the standards of the practice of medicine and limit the legal liability of the practitioner.

The medical council's guidelines state that doctors treating patients on the internet must: "confirm to their satisfaction the identity of the patient; be confident that a physical examination would not add critical information before providing treatment; not prescribe to anyone except for a patient under his or her care, (as a result doctors registered in New Zealand are not permitted to provide bulk prescriptions to individuals or groups overseas), not prescribe medication to an individual overseas unless the patient has had a face-to-face consultation with the doctor".

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