Foreign medications endanger Florida patients
In May, undercover investigators busted two Florida pharmacies for selling counterfeit medicines supposedly imported from Canada.
Those "Canadian" drugs actually came from India. They were rife with impurities and unknown ingredients.
Scams like this run rampant in Florida and across the United States. Yet some politicians — including presidential candidate Mike Huckabee — support legalizing the importation of cheap foreign medicines as a way to cut health-care spending. The facts say otherwise. According to a study by the nonpartisan federal Congressional Budget Office, drug importation would reduce our nation's spending on prescription medicines by a whopping 0.1 percent — and that's not including the tens of millions of dollars the Food and Drug Administration would need to oversee a transnational drug-safety program.
Drug importation is a deeply misguided idea. It exposes consumers to counterfeit drugs of unknown origins, and undermines the public's long-term health by weakening biopharmaceutical companies' incentives to invest in future treatments and cures. Congress should uphold laws that prohibit widespread drug importation.
The vast majority of imported "Canadian" drugs aren't made in Canada and often involve unreliable and unregulated Internet pharmacies. More than 96 percent of Internet pharmacies don't adhere to U.S. pharmacy laws and practice standards, according to a new study from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Of these noncompliant pharmacies, 88 percent sell drugs without requiring a doctor's prescription.
Far too often, importing drugs of unknown quality from sketchy pharmacy websites ends in tragedy. Consider the case of one Texas emergency-room doctor, who suffered a stroke after importing what he thought was a popular weight-loss drug. The online pharmacy had actually substituted the doctor's ordered drug for a counterfeit, stroke-inducing medication shipped in from China.
If medical professionals can't tell the difference between real and counterfeit drugs, regular patients don't stand a chance.
A 2005 investigation by the FDA looked at 4,000 drug shipments coming into the United States. Almost half of them claimed to be from Canada. Of those, a full 85 percent were from countries such as India, Vanuatu and Costa Rica.
As part of another investigation, FDA officials bought three popular drugs from two Internet pharmacies claiming to be "located in, and operated out of, Canada." Both websites had Canadian flags on their websites. Yet neither the pharmacies nor the drugs were actually from Canada. And in laboratory analysis, every pill failed basic purity and potency tests.
Not only does drug importation put patients at risk, but it also disincentivizes domestic medical research. By importing Canadian price controls, importation would destroy biopharmaceutical companies' incentives to continue pouring money into the 3,400 potential new medicines currently under development in the United States — and cost many Americans their jobs. In the Sunshine State alone, the biopharmaceutical industry employs 22,000 people. Those positions pay workers an average salary of $73,000 — well above the state average of $47,000. All told, the industry adds $16 billion to Florida's economy.
Right now, American patients who head online to buy drugs are motivated by the cut-rate prices they see on the Web. Health insurers could help patients avoid this temptation by reducing co-pays for drug purchases, particularly for low-income patients. If drugs become more affordable in the states, patients won't feel the urge to look for a bargain abroad.
To protect Florida workers and patients, the Sunshine State's representatives in Congress must reject any initiatives supporting drug importation.
Peter J. Pitts, a former FDA associate commissioner, is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.