Feds Target Online Pharmacies

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The FDA and DEA have sent warning letters to four online networks for illegally marketing unapproved and misbranded versions of opioid pain medication. The letters are the latest step in what appears to be an expanding federal and private crackdown on online pharmacies and websites that offer alternative health products and information.

The four online networks, which operate at least 10 websites, are Divyata, Euphoria Healthcare, JCM Dropship and Meds4U. The letters warn the companies to immediately stop selling illegal opioids to consumers.

“We cannot allow rogue online pharmacies to continue to fuel the crisis by illegally offering opioids for sale and circumventing the important safeguards that have been put in place for opioids to help protect the public health,” said acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, MD.

The FDA has issued letters of this type before, but this is the first time the agency has jointly issued warning letters with the DEA. The companies were given 15 days to respond.

“You knowingly or intentionally use the Internet to advertise the sale of controlled substances by directing prospective buyers to Internet sellers of controlled substances who do not possess a valid modified DEA registration,” one letter warns.

“Therefore, your websites are operating in violation of United States law, which may be enforced through criminal penalties and civil enforcement.”

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The letter to Divyata alleges the company sells the opioid painkiller tramadol as an “agony reliever that ties with receptors of the mind and sensory system to diminish dimensions of torment.”

Euphoria Healthcare was warned for selling the opioid tapentadol under the name “Aspadol Tab” and claiming it is used “to treat moderate to severe pain that occurs for shorter to longer periods of time.” The FDA has never approved a drug called “Aspadol Tab.”

As PNN has reported, the FDA has previously cracked down on rogue online pharmacies selling counterfeit drugs or illegal medication. Often the websites reappear under new names or move offshore. As many as 35,000 online pharmacies operate worldwide. The vast majority are not in compliance with U.S. laws and many do not require a prescription, according to the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies.

The federal crackdown is not limited to opioids or prescription drugs. This month the Federal Trade Commission warned three companies selling CBD oils, tinctures, edibles and other products to stop making claims that CBD can be used to treat pain and other chronic illnesses.

Google Warns Online Publishers

Internet companies have also taken steps to reduce the flow of online traffic and advertising revenue to websites that offer alternative health information and products.

Today Google informed thousands of online publishers enrolled in its AdSense advertising partnership that it would restrict advertising on websites that promote or have content about recreational drugs, unapproved pharmaceuticals or supplements. The policy not only applies to illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine, but includes several alternative treatments for pain, such as marijuana, CBD, kratom and other herbal supplements.

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In effect, Google is telling online publishers their advertising revenue will be reduced or stopped if they provide information that Google considers inappropriate.

“Publisher restrictions identify content that is restricted from receiving certain sources of advertising. By content, we mean anything present on your page or app - including other advertisements and links to other sites or apps,” Google explained in a note to publishers.

“If your content is labeled with an inventory restriction, fewer advertising sources will be eligible to bid on it. In some cases this will mean that no advertising sources are bidding on your inventory and no ads will appear on your content.”

Pain News Network is a Google AdSense partner. We frequently publish content about kratom, CBD and other alternative pain treatments. It is unclear how Google’s advertising policy will affect PNN.

In addition to restrictions on advertising, recent changes to Google’s search engine algorithms have suppressed search results for hundreds of websites that offer alternative health information or products. As a result, many of these websites have already experienced a substantial drop in revenue and readers.

Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr and other online social networks have also recently suspended or deleted dozens of alternative health pages for containing what Facebook considers “false, misleading, fraudulent, or deceptive claims or content.”

Pinterest said it relies on governmental bodies to decide what is appropriate. “We rely on information from nationally and internationally recognized institutions, including the CDC and WHO, to help us determine if content violates these guidelines,” Pinterest explained in an email to a website that was banned.

PNN’s account with Pinterest was suspended without warning in June for violating the company’s “spam policies.”  Our account was reactivated a week later with an apology.

“Sorry that your account was suspended. Occasionally good accounts get caught in the mix when we're looking for spammy accounts,” Pinterest said in an email.

Online Censorship of Health Information Is Authoritarianism

By A. Rahman Ford, PNN columnist

Critics of stem cell therapy have taken their censorship campaign to another frightening and paternalistic step up the authoritarian ladder. Not only does it threaten freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of health, but now it’s targeting poor people.

The campaign to stop people from accessing stem cell therapy (SCT) has been building for some time. First there was fearmongering to scare patients away from SCT, followed by a push to have regulatory agencies increase enforcement.  Then came a call for social media platforms like YouTube to censor patient testimonials about the benefits of SCT.

Now, in a disturbing turn, critics are pressuring fundraising platforms like GoFundMe to purge campaigns that seek to raise funds for SCT.

In a recent op/ed in the BBC’s Future, London-based neurologist Dr. Jules Montague argues that crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe need to crackdown on patients seeking to raise money for stem cell treatments. Montague says their testimonials omit the “unfounded hype” and potential risks associated with SCT. These “bad actors,” according to Montague, should be banned to “halt the spread of misinformation.”

To propose that crowdfunding sites be tasked with choosing winners and losers in the marketplace of ideas, and to impose quasi-criminal sanctions on poor patients is to enter a decidedly dictatorial dimension. “Bad actor” is a legal term of art, and should be left to the jurisdiction of a court of law or other legislatively-authorized tribunal. That’s how things work in a democracy.

On the other hand, authoritarian regimes censor whatever speech they see fit, arbitrarily and without explanation. As it pertains to crowdfunding sites, what we absolutely do not need is unelected and unappointed “experts’” selling misplaced fears.

The question that should be asked is why do the SCT critics fear the agency of the people? Is the notion that people can make their own medical decisions – and accept the risks of those decisions – without “expert” stewardship, consultation or approval such a terrifying prospect?

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Ultimately, this “purge and censor” line of argument represents a slippery slope that is distinctly anti-democratic. And at the bottom of the slope, are piled the bodies of the sick, whose desperation is fueled by the abject failures of mainstream medicine.

Equally disturbing is the fact that stem cell censorship on fundraising platforms would be a clear and unmistakable attack on the poor. Poor people are the ones who need to raise money, not the wealthy. The average person doesn’t have the finances of a star athlete like Max Scherzer or a celebrity actress like Selma Blair to get stem cell treatment. Instead, they have to rely on the generosity of others, a generosity that crowdfunding sites facilitate. To censor SCT fundraising is to not only censor a voice, but a livelihood, and maybe even a life itself. Poor people should not be punished for being poor.

Does Dr. Montague really expect GoFundMe and other sites to establish their own internal ethics boards and become the online sentinels of poor people’s health? There is no defensible or rational justification for preventing chronically ill poor people from raising the money they need to save their own lives.

Online Censorship Increasing

Unfortunately, online censorship of alternative health information is not new. In fact, it’s increasing. Facebook recently deleted dozens of alternative health pages without any notice or explanation. Some, such as Natural Cures Not Medicine and Just Natural Medicine, had millions of followers.

GreenMedInfo was kicked off Pinterest for violating its “misinformation policy” which bans “false cures” for chronic illnesses. And who helps Pinterest determine what health advice is false?

“We rely on information from nationally and internationally recognized institutions, including the CDC and WHO, to help us determine if content violates these guidelines,” Pinterest explained in an email.

Recent changes to Google’s Broad Core Algorithms have also suppressed search results for alternative medical information. As a consequence, hundreds of health websites have experienced drastic drops in traffic, including Pain News Network. One website, owned by alternative health advocate Dr. Joseph Mercola, lost about 99% of its traffic.

“Big Tech has joined the movement, bringing in a global concentration of wealth to eliminate competition and critical voices,” Mercola warned. “This year, we’ve seen an unprecedented push to implement censorship across all online platforms, making it increasingly difficult to obtain and share crucial information about health topics.”

We’ve seen an unprecedented push to implement censorship across all online platforms, making it increasingly difficult to obtain and share crucial information about health topics.
— Dr. Joseph Mercola

Even Wikipedia, which relies on open source editing for its content, has succumbed to the “deletionism” of alternative health information.

“We believe that organised skeptic groups are actively targeting Wikipedia articles that promote natural, non-drug therapies with which they disagree,” says the Alliance for Natural Health. “The new trick of these editors is to rewrite or entirely remove pertinent information from such articles or, worse still, delete entire articles altogether.”

It now appears that stem cell therapy is the next hooded subject to be escorted into the Star Chamber of deletionism. The call for fundraising censorship is distinctly ant-human, and denies the most essential and primordial of human instincts – to assist a fellow human being in their time of need.

It is not the place of GoFundMe or any other fundraising site to police people’s medical choices. GoFundMe, your core principles are turning “compassion into action” and the sharing of people’s stories “far and wide.” Please do not capitulate to the SCT bullies.

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A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Howard Law Journal. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food. He has received stem cell treatment in China. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Putting a Pin into Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

As a social media platform, Pinterest is best known as a place to share recipes or get tips about fashion and home decorating — topics that appeal to its core audience of women.

But over the years Pinterest has quietly evolved into a surprisingly good place to learn about chronic pain and to network with others in the pain community, according to researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University. Their study, “Pinning to Cope: Using Pinterest for Chronic Pain Management,” was recently published in the journal Health Education & Behavior.

“We’re seeing that Pinterest is being used by patients to really support each other, to provide information for each other, and to just find an outlet for dealing with chronic pain,” said Jeanine Guidry, PhD, who studies social media and mobile technology.

Guidry and co-author Eric Benotsch, PhD, a psychology professor at VCU, analyzed 502 posts on Pinterest about chronic pain and found – not surprisingly -- that nearly all referred in some way to the severity of pain.

But rather than just complaining about their pain, many of the posters shared or “pinned” positive tips on self-care and pain management, along with tips for caregivers and friends. About 18% of the posts used humor as a coping mechanism.

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“Our findings show that, first of all, people are talking about chronic pain on Pinterest,” Guidry said. “But second of all, our findings show that the vast majority of posts were by individuals.”

Relatively few of the posts originated with healthcare or public health organizations, and researchers said there was “cause for concern” about the lack of information from reputable health sources. A key finding was that posts about chronic pain on Pinterest have a higher level of user engagement than most other healthcare topics.

“Knowing that this conversation about chronic pain is taking place on Pinterest, health communication professionals should consider using Pinterest [more] because they can really reach out to the people who are trying to manage chronic pain,” Guidry said.

Pinterest has about 250 million active users and 80 percent of them are women. Guidry says the social media platform could be leveraged more to communicate with pain sufferers.

“Is it the biggest platform for these kind of topics? No, but it’s obvious it’s being used,” she said. “And it’s an outlet we should use as health communicators.

“When you look at these Pinterest posts, you see people trying to manage pain and trying to help each other and trying to provide support to each other. That is something that could be turned into an effective tool for health care providers and for communicators.”

Guidry said the study’s findings are encouraging because they suggest that people with chronic pain are posting about healthy coping mechanisms and other people are engaging with them.

“Chronic pain posts have a strong presence on Pinterest, and health care professionals should both consider utilizing the platform in order to reach a population they might not otherwise reach, as well as broadening this field of study to determine a clearer picture of the potential uses of this and other social media platforms,” she said.

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