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Internet pharmacy convictions welcomed

18 February 2005

Ministry of Health welcomes internet pharmacy convictions

The Ministry of Health welcomes the convictions of a Dunedin company, Vanilla Limited, and its two shareholders in relation to the sale of prescription medicines over the internet in breach of the Medicines Act 1981.

The shareholders are Deborah Isabella Young, a Dunedin pharmacist and a former director of Vanilla Limited, and Stephen Alan Brentnall, the current sole director of the Dunedin company.

On January 31 this year in the Dunedin District Court, the three defendants entered pleas of guilty to a number of charges relating to an operation that involved the sale of prescription and other medicines via the internet to overseas purchasers. The medicines were being sent from New Zealand and routed through Fiji to destinations in Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Canada and the United States. The medicines being exported included Prozac, Xenical, Propecia and Viagra.

Brentnall and Vanilla Limited each pleaded guilty to 15 charges and Young to five charges of selling a prescription medicine by retail without a prescription. The defendants all pleaded guilty to four charges of possessing a prescription medicine without reasonable excuse.

Pleas of guilty were also entered by Vanilla Limited to five charges under the Crimes Act of making a false document with intent to deceive and one charge of attempting to export a controlled drug contrary to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.

Vanilla Ltd was fined $22,650 and ordered to forfeit seized medicines with an estimated value of more than $100,000. Brentnall was fined $6650 and Young was fined $4050. A total of $6890 in court costs was imposed against the three defendants. In addition the Ministry was awarded costs of $25,000.

The defendants were all convicted and sentenced on February 3 this year, but details of the case were suppressed after the defendants signalled they would appeal for continuation of name suppression. This appeal was subsequently dropped.

The Ministry's Team Leader of Medicines Control, Rachel Read today described the case as a carefully-planned attempt to flout New Zealand and international laws on medicines control, with little regard for the safety of consumers.

In May and in June 2002 Ministry of Health investigators seized medicines for export with an estimated wholesale value of more than $100,000. Counterfeit packaging had been used to disguise prescription medicines as dietary supplements and throat lozenges. A search warrant was executed at a private Dunedin address in June 2002 during the investigation. At the address investigators located 19 cartons of prescription medicines, sales records and receipts, customs labels indicating Fiji as the country of origin, and postage and packaging materials. The Ministry believes the operation may have been turning over as much as $300,000 a month.

This is the Ministry's third prosecution of an internet-based operation which has involved breaches of the Medicines Act 1981 in relation to the sale of prescription medicines.

"This prosecution should serve as a warning that the Ministry takes breaches of the Medicines Act very seriously,'' Ms Read said. "The Ministry will continue to actively investigate people or companies attempting to flout the law in this manner."

"It's also a timely reminder to people that they should not be buying prescription medicines from any source, including the internet, without a prescription. Not only is it illegal, but there are also very real health risks involved. Prescription medicines are classified as requiring a prescription from a doctor or authorised prescriber, because of the risk to health they present if they are not clinically appropriate for the individual or are not taken properly. Furthermore, if a medicine is not obtained through a lawful chain of distribution, there can be no assurances that the medicine is what it says it is, or that its quality and safety have not been compromised."

Convictions of this nature against pharmacists will be reported by the Ministry to the Pharmacy Council, which is able to take disciplinary action.


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