Viagra Seller Brings Big Dollars


Monday, July 10th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


CLANTON, Ala. (AP) — Rural Chilton County is an unlikely home for a business that bills itself as one of the world's biggest Web-based sellers of Viagra.

The quiet farming community is decidedly unsexy: Its best-known product is peaches, grown in dozens of groves and sold at stands along Interstate 65.

But the county is also headquarters for an e-business that — through a network reaching from Australia to Eastern Europe — claims to sell millions of dollars worth of the little pills that can help impotent men have sex again.

Known locally as NMC Marketing, Norfolk Men's Clinic is housed in a small office in a strip mall. Owner Anita Yates said the company has quickly become one of the top Web-based sellers of Viagra since opening in October 1998.

``We're involved in the absolute cutting edge of health care,'' said Yates. While acknowledging the problem of rogue medical Web sites, she said her business is completely legal.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and local authorities are investigating. The state already has suspended and fined a local doctor accused of illegally filling prescriptions for Yates' company.

``It's a long way from being over,'' said Sheriff Billy Fulmer.

Federal agents raided NMC's office last year, seizing computer hard drives, filing cabinets and pill-cutting devices that are sold to customers. No charges have been filed.

FDA spokeswoman Susan Cruzan said Friday the agency would not comment on a pending investigation. However, Norfolk Men's Clinic is not among the 140 Web sellers listed on the FDA's Internet site as being in possible violation of prescription medication laws.

The scrutiny is directed at a business with cramped headquarters that resembles a telemarketing office more than a medical supplier.

Five women sit at computer terminals. Melodic chimes signaling new e-mail ring out across the office, indicating a new order or a question.

Yates doesn't have a medical background; she used to train horses and clean aquariums for a living. She got into the Viagra business through her fiance, whom she met in an Internet chat room.

``I think the reason Viagra has done so well in this forum is because men don't want to admit they may have a problem,'' she said. Drugs are shipped via Federal Express without any indication of their contents.

An order for 100 mg Viagra pills — which sell for $10 each — goes around the world before reaching the buyer.

To purchase Viagra or other medicines for baldness, allergies or assorted problems, customers link to a computer in Australia. They fill out one consent form, another detailing their medical history and a third with payment information. The typical order is between $250 and $300, she said.

Billing information comes electronically to the Clanton office, which has total annual sales of at least $13 million, according to figures from Yates. The medical information is reviewed by seven doctors in Romania, where the government has licensed the business.

The foreign doctors then send approved prescriptions electronically to Weirton, W.Va., where Norfolk Pharmacy ships the pills from a converted convenience store selected because West Virginia honors foreign prescriptions.

According to Yates' figures, the West Virginia office handles orders worth as much as $54.6 million annually for Norfolk Men's Clinic and several other Web-based drug sellers.

``We're not the biggest, but we're in the top two or three,'' she said.

There is no guarantee the government will let Norfolk Men's Clinic continue growing, however.

Fulmer, the Chilton County sheriff, said his office and the FDA have been investigating Yates' business for months to determine whether any laws are being broken.

In a case already brought by the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners, local emergency room physician Roger Eiland was fined $5,000 and barred from practicing medicine for 90 days over allegations he wrote prescriptions based on e-mail, without ever examining patients.

Eiland could not be located through Chilton Medical Center, where he practiced, and there was no home telephone number listed in his name.

But the head of the state medical examiners board, Larry Dixon, has defended Eiland publicly, and townspeople were shocked to learn of the disciplinary action.

``I think the world of him,'' said City Clerk Betty Wilson, who went to Eiland for more than a decade.

Yates said Eiland and other doctors working with Norfolk Men's Clinic prescribe Viagra the same way any physician would: By gathering information from a patient. They're just doing it over the Internet instead of through a form in their office, she said.

``Nine times out of 10 the drugs we are handling would be handled in a doctors office without a physical examination,'' she said. Whether doctors can do that over the Internet ``is the crux of the debate,'' she said.

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On the Net:

FDA on online medication: http://www.fda.gov/oc/buyonline

Norfolk Men's Clinic: http://viagra.au.com/

Pfizer Inc.'s site: http://www.viagra.com