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Officials React to Illegal Sale of Pills

State and city officials are pledging to tackle the illegal sale of prescription medications in Massachusetts stores.

WBUR reported yesterday that the drugs, especially antibiotics, are widely available in several Boston areas. Our Health and Science reporter Allan Coukell has more on reaction to the story.

TEXT OF STORYALLAN COUKELL: We found local stores selling a variety of antibiotics, including ampicillin and tetracycline. Heart medication and a banned anti-inflammatory drug were also available. The stores cater mainly to new immigrants.

PAUL DREYER: Our main concern is with the health risks that people are taking on.

COUKELL: Paul Dreyer, associate commissioner in the Department of Public Health, oversees Massachusetts' drug control program and Board of Pharmacy.

He says the agency will undertake an enforcement action within the next few days. He declined to provide details of the pending action, but cautioned that it will be small.

DREYER: Clearly, we want to stop the people who are selling these products. We want them to stop selling them. But in terms of enforcement, we don't have the wherewithal to engage in a large scale investigation of all of them.

COUKELL: Dreyer says a few businesses in Boston and possibly nearby cities could be affected. DPH hopes to reach more stores by working with City of Boston inspectors.

ALI NOORANI: One of the worst things we could do at this point is go down the path of punitive enforcement on store owners.

COUKELL: Ali Noorani, from the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, cautions against alienating the store owners.

NOORANI: I think the state and the city have an opportunity to actually partner with store owners, so when an immigrant is coming to the store saying, 'I need this antibiotic', the store owner can say, 'You know what? The right place to get medical care is the health center.'

COUKELL: The Department of Public Health says that will be part of their longer-term response. They also plan to partner with the Boston Public Health Commission to reach the community. Commission medical director Nancy Norman:

NANCY NORMAN: Our community outreach group, which is a fairly large group, can also help to spread this kind of information to communities as they're going out, whether it is to do health fairs or other events.

COUKELL: Dr Norman called on people to report illegal sales to the State Board of Pharmacy. She said the stores selling prescription meds may believe they are providing a service, but they could be doing harm. One Mattapan woman knows that first hand.

SONYA: I was in the store getting products for my hair, and also I was trying to see if they had anything that would help with my acne marks.

COUKELL: Her name is Sonya. She's asked that we use only her first name. She was in a hair salon in Mattapan. This was a few weeks ago. She says the salesclerk sold her two creams — one from France, one from Italy — to use on the marks on her face.

Sonya says after about a week her skin started to change from its usual brown to patches that are much, much darker.

SONYA: My face is ridiculous right now. It's a mess. It turned black. You could say as black as a shirt; the color black. Basically, I just started freaking out. Like, am I going to have to live like this for the rest of my life?

COUKELL: Sonya's doctor confirms these changes to her skin. When he looked at the two creams, he found that one was a prescription-only steroid. The other was a whitening agent not approved sale by the FDA.

The full scope of such sales remains unknown. Representative Peter Koutoujian, chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health, says he plans meetings with both state and federal officials, to ask them to investigate.

PETER KOUTOUJIAN: I think that the federal and state agencies need to step in, in order to understand how much this is going on and how bad it is for people.

COUKELL: For her part, Sonya says she intends to talk to a lawyer. She wants to make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else. For WBUR, I'm Allan Coukell.

This program aired on April 11, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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