Facebook (FB - Get Report) , Google (GOOGL - Get Report) and Yahoo (YHOO) will be face-to-face with the Drug Enforcement Agency and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb at the FDA Online Opioid Summit. But they won't have to answer questions in public about how illicit Internet drug sales total more than $180 million a year.
The roundtable with "Internet Stakeholders" is part of the summit taking place June 27 at the FDA White Oaks Campus in Silver Springs, Md.
But that roundtable is not part of the portions of the event presented in a public webcast. FDA spokesperson Lyndsay Meyer told TheStreet that only remarks by FDA officials will be webcast "so that we can encourage an open and collaborative discussion among stakeholders."
Though the event has been planned for more than a month, the agenda shifted June 26 to include a presentation by the DEA on a probe it has done regarding the Internet and opioids.
But only opening remarks by Janet Woodcock of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, a presentation by FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, and closing remarks by Donald Ashley will be presented to the public.
"Internet Stakeholders" who were invited by the FDA are Microsoft's Bing (MSFT - Get Report) Google, Yahoo, Twitter (TWTR - Get Report) , Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, Pinterest, SnapChat, Amazon.com (AMZN - Get Report) , eBay (EBAY - Get Report) , Craigslist, Alibaba (BABA - Get Report) , GoDaddy (GDDY - Get Report) , Neustar (NSR) and the Public Interest Registry. Also getting a seat at the table are Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
Specialty invitations went to Partnership for Safe Medicines, Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, Partnership for Drug Free Kids and LegitScript.
A panel led by academics will present research on "the ease with which opioids can be purchased online." A roundtable will also be presented on addressing opioids marketed online, with representatives from the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies, the Internet Association and Mastercard.
Finally, a second roundtable will also take place, where the tech companies will be asked to participate called, "Gaps and New Solutions by Internet Stakeholders."
The Internet Association, an advocacy group representing the largest online and tech companies held a conference call about the summit, calling the crisis "a national tragedy" and pledging to play an "outsized role" in cleaning up the online opioid issue.
At the same time, the association noted that data shows just 3.4% of people abusing opioids obtain them from online sources. "We will continue to rely on the help of healthcare companies and government agencies in dealing with this problem."
One example of tech companies becoming more active in the opioid issue is Facebook's recent move to refer users who are searching for opioids to purchase online to a federal crisis help line.
After reading this story, FDA Lyndsay Meyer sent this statement to TheStreet. "As always, we strive to be as transparent as possible while balancing the need to protect the sensitive commercial or business information that will be shared. Today's Online Opioid Summit will be no different. While certain parts will not be webcast, we will provide a recap of the meeting tomorrow and will communicate key information about this important collaboration."
The decision to shut out the public and to give tech companies political cover illustrates how the Trump administration has struggled to find its footing with the opioid crisis, a disaster that cost 42,000 Americans their lives in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Beyond the lives lost in 2016, there were other costs. Last year, the Council on Economic Advisors estimated that the opioid epidemic had an economic cost of $504 billion in 2015.
As a candidate, Donald Trump campaigned on stepping into the drug crisis and solving the national nightmare. But once in office, it took President Trump a bit of time to move on opioids. He announced his intention to declare a public health emergency tied to opioids in August 2017 but didn't actually declare the emergency until October 26, 2017. When he did sign the executive order, there was no funding mechanism in place to move the recommendations along.
The president also formed the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis and appointed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to lead that entity. It submitted its 138-page report in November 2017, but again the White House did not act.
In February, Trump appointed White House Adviser Kellyanne Conway to implement the president's agenda on the opioid crisis. The move launched a backlash among drug experts and public health advocates as Conway has no public health or drug background.
The following month the president went to New Hampshire to roll out his new opioid plan. The plan centered on prevention and education, improving access to treatment and recovery, and enhanced law enforcement and interdiction. The plan was short on specific policies or time lines by which they might be achieved.
They also got lost in the rhetoric as Trump made a case for using the death penalty on drug dealers as a tool to help solve the opioid crisis. "The thing that these drug dealers understand is violence, and toughness," Trump said. "If we don't get tough with these drug dealers, we are wasting our time. And that toughness is the death penalty."
Attorney General Jeff Sessions created the Prescription Interdiction and Litigation Task Force this year to probe how opioids are being prescribed and to examine how opioid manufacturers as well as drug distributors operate.
Sessions also formed the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement team. Made up of the DEA, Safe Streets Task Forces, drug trafficking task forces, Health Care Fraud Special Agents, FBI Special Agents, intelligence analysts, and professional staff to focus on opioid sales online.
The FDA itself had something of an online enforcement event June 5 when it sent out warning letters to networks AnonShop, Eassybuyonline, Instabill ECS-RX, Medstore.biz, One Stop Pharma, RemedyMart, RxCash.Biz, TramadolHub and XLPharmacy that they were in violation of FDA regulations regarding opioids, misbranded drugs and unapproved new drugs. The nine networks were tied to 53 websites, some of which are no longer up.
According to the FDA, research from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy found that using Google, Yahoo or Bing in searches for prescription opioids resulted in 91% of users landing on a site offering prescription opioids illegally.