FDA asks Internet pros for help in combatting opioids

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After his appointment as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration in April 2017, Scott Gottlieb, MD, said combatting the opioid crisis should be the agency’s highest priority. Now, he’s asking Internet stakeholders—including government agencies, technology firms academic researchers and advocacy groups—for help in reducing the illegal sale of opioids over the Internet.

“We know that the Internet, both the surface and the dark web, aren’t the only market places for the illegal sale of prescription drugs,” Gottlieb says. “But they’re perhaps the most far-reaching conduit for illicit drugs, and these new avenues present unique challenges for tech companies and law enforcement, as well as for the FDA.”

Gottlieb on June 27 hosted a summit to bring together stakeholders to examine new ways to stop online sales. He acknowledged that the FDA in the past has been one step behind the epidemic, and that can no longer continue.

“We cannot ignore this space simply because other illicit sources of opioids, such as diversion, theft and smuggling, are still the more predominant routes by which people currently obtain illegal drugs,” he said at the summit. “We’re going to take new steps and direct new investigative and criminal oversight resources to stop the illegal sale of opioids online. But we cannot do it alone.”

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Possible approaches at the summit included promoting educational content on the risks of purchasing opioids online in top search results and social media posts; making it more difficult for individuals to find opioid sellers online; connecting individuals to treatment programs; and using big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence to identify illegal activity.

Gottlieb noted that while the agency is getting additional resources, it hasn’t stood still in recent years, with port of entry investigations in 2017 resulting in 115 arrests or prosecutions, more than 60 guilty pleas and more than 80 convictions. Halfway through 2018, the FBI has matched past-year numbers with more than 90 arrests or prosecutions, 65 guilty pleas and 80 convictions.

“Despite our best efforts, we recognize that for every web site or illegal online pharmacy we succeed in shutting down; there are others that replace them,” he said at the summit. “The federal government’s enforcement activities cannot alone stifle the flow of drugs online.”

Gottlieb assured Internet stakeholders that the FBI knows they didn’t create this problem, but as internet experts, they know the possible technological solutions, and the agency needs their help. “We need to work together on shared solutions to address the problem of opioids being illegally sold online. And we need Internet companies to be our partners in this effort.”

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