Commissioner highlights themes and key points made at the meeting.

As access to legally prescribed prescription opioids is reduced, FDA expects people to turn to illicit sources, particularly digital drug dealers and other criminals selling illegal opioid over the Internet. Although FDA recognizes that diversion, theft and smuggling are the predominant means for obtaining illegal drugs, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb noted in a statement that steps need to be taken now to curb the illegal sale of opioids online and that the agency cannot do it alone.

The recent Online Opioid Summit brought together various participants to discuss research on “how and where online sales are occurring, ways to utilize big data solutions and artificial intelligence and the importance of consumer education to recognize illegal channels.” Participants shared information about their platforms and existing surveillance and security protocols, as well as any challenges and potential barriers to taking further action – largely lack of data and regulatory concerns.

Actions being taken today include promoting legitimate or educational content in top search results or social media posts, making it harder for individuals to find illegal sellers online and making public health resources more accessible. Opportunities for the use of big data and machine learning/artificial intelligence to identify illegal activity were discussed. 

FDA, meanwhile, highlighted recent criminal enforcement work. FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations opened 339 port of entry (POE) investigations in 2017 and 167 to date in 2018. While just 19 POE investigations in 2017 related to opioid products, that number has already climbed to 25 in 2018. A total of 115 arrests or prosecutions resulted from the investigations in 2017, with 60 guilty pleas and more than 80 convictions. In 2018 so far, there have already been more than 90 arrests, more than 65 guilty pleas and 80 convictions. Gottlieb noted that the agency is shifting more resources towards these activities, with more details to come.

Gottlieb also acknowledged that FDA cannot eliminate the problem of online opioid sales without help from the online community. He sees the Online Opioid Summit “as a first step in a long-term collaboration on these efforts and the beginning of an ongoing dialogue.” He added that “We need internet companies to be our partners in this effort as we all take on the social responsibility for implementing those solutions.” Furthermore, he recognized that Internet companies did not create the problem and should not be responsible for tackling it alone. They are experts in the field, however, and can play a key role in developing solutions to the problem.