The ease of finding drugs online, along with more potent opioids, is being blamed for a surge in deaths from overdoses in recent years. The Food and Drug Administration is hosting a summit Wednesday with Facebook and Instagram, Google, Oath's Yahoo, Microsoft's Bing, Twitter and Alibaba, along with federal agencies, academics and advocacy groups, to find ways to combat the growing problem.
Online sales have moved beyond shadowy sites of the dark net such as "Silk Road" to social media sites and mainstream search engines, helping fuel a dramatic rise in illicit sales. More than 63,000 people died from overdoses last year, a 21 percent increase from the previous year, according to the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Senate investigators "learned just how easy" it was to find and buy fentanyl online with "simple internet searches 'fentanyl for sale'," according to a January report by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security. The White House has declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, and federal health officials say it's actually lowered the U.S. life expectancy.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said part of the problem is that many consumers think they're buying pain pills when they're actually getting a deadly form of pressed fentanyl. The potent synthetic drug fueled the increase in overdose deaths last year, according to the CDC.
"I don't want to be caught one step behind a dangerous new turn of this crisis," Gottlieb said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. "That's why we're going to hit back hard against the illegal sales of illicit drugs like fentanyl — drugs that are being bought and sold online in many cases, and are flowing through international mail facilities."
The FDA invited tech companies to the summit in May. Company officials will listen to panel discussions and participate in several roundtable talks about current approaches and possible solutions, according to the agenda.
Some companies have already taken steps to address the problem. Gottlieb praised Google for "de-indexing" web pages, or hiding them in U.S. searches, based on FDA findings, such as the agency sending warning letters.
He pointed to Microsoft's Bing flashing a warning on internet pharmacy websites the FDA has flagged for illegally distributing material that could harm consumers. Gottlieb also noted that Facebook has been redirecting users trying to buy illegal opioids on its site to information about a federal crisis help line.
For its part, the FDA has upped its efforts to track and investigate illegal online drug sales, targeting both manufacturers and sellers. However, Gottlieb said the FDA and federal law enforcement can't do it alone.
"The easy availability of opioids online is a major public health concern," he said. "Cutting off this flow of illicit internet traffic in opioids is critical. And we need your help, collaboration, ideas, and commitment to addressing this critical facet of the opioid epidemic. Only by working together can we address the severity of the public health emergency we are facing."