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Tech companies meet with FDA to discuss how to curb sale of opioids online

It was the third in a series of Online Opioid Summits hosted by the FDA, which started in 2018 and have brought together social media platforms, academics and law enforcement.
Eric Baradat / AFP - Getty Images

Representatives from social media companies including Twitter, Facebook, Snap and TikTok met with the United States Food and Drug Administration on Thursday to discuss how to reduce the availability of opioids online. 

The day-long event, which took place over Zoom, included academics and law enforcement officials, and was not open to the public or media, focused on how the attendees could be more proactive and collaborative in their approach to identifying drug dealers and organized crime groups marketing opioids or certain “precursor” ingredients used to bulk manufacture opioids such as fentanyl, according to Tim Mackey, an associate professor at the University of California San Diego, who presented at the event. 

Over the last few years, researchers have repeatedly shown that it’s easy to find accounts promoting illegal drug sales on social media platforms, despite most of the platforms having policies prohibiting such content. 

Mackey, whose startup company S-3 Research tracks how digital drug dealers and internet pharmacies sell opioids online, said he came away from the event feeling “cautiously optimistic” about how the meeting went in terms of the commitment of representatives to work together. 

It was the third in a series of Online Opioid Summits hosted by the FDA. The first took place in June 2018 in response to the rising availability of illicit opioids for sale through the internet, including social media platforms and online pharmacies. 

“The activity is contributing to the public health emergency of opioid-related overdose deaths that have ripped apart families and communities,” said then-FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb in a statement after the event. “We aim to confront these new threats.”

The second event took place in 2019 and focused more on the role of domain registries, which have the power to remove domain names for websites that illegally sell opioids online, effectively knocking them offline.

“We now have a much more collaborative environment than there was in 2019,” said Mackey, who attended all three summits. “I didn’t hear much pushback from attendees, although there are competing narratives about where the risks are and how real they are -- for example whether people are selling drugs online are scammers or actual dealers.”

He added that social media companies have historically taken different approaches, with some more aggressive about removing content and accounts without taking into account the impact that could have on active law enforcement investigations. Others, he said, have strict policies against the sale of opioids that are not consistently enforced. 

“But I don’t think anyone is denying this is a serious public health issue, especially with overdoses climbing,” Mackey said.

More than 93,000 people in the United States died in 2020 from drug overdoses, the vast majority from opioids, according to data released by the CDC — a 29 percent increase from 2019. 

Elizabeth Busby, a spokesperson for Twitter, confirmed that the social media company has sent representatives to all three of the FDA’s Online Opioid Summits, and described this year’s event as “good and productive.”