The myth of drug “re-importation”
On Thursday, as part of the Department of Homeland Security funding bill, the Senate voted to make us less secure by allowing Americans to purchase prescription drugs from Canada over the Internet. The measure is now headed to conference, where House and Senate lawmakers will hammer out a final piece of legislation.
When he introduced the measure to his fellow Senators, Louisiana Republican David Vitter described it as a “re-importation amendment.” And over the next few weeks, as lawmakers deliberate on this, you’re likely to hear that phrase quite a bit. Supporters of foreign drug importation believe that such wording makes this policy more palatable to the American public.
After all, the implication of the term “re-importation” is that once the ban is lifted, U.S. manufacturers will export their drugs to foreign distributors, which will, in turn, sell back those exact same drugs to us.
Brand-name pharmaceuticals found abroad tend to be significantly cheaper than they are in the States, largely because foreign governments impose stringent price controls on most drug sales.
Advocates claim that “re-importation” will allow American patients to benefit from this price disparity.
But “re-importation” doesn’t actually describe what will happen if foreign drug importation is legalized. Using the term is an act of linguistic misdirection — or outright chicanery, if you’ve got a cynical streak.
Importing drugs from Canada is exceedingly dangerous for a number of reasons. For starters, many Internet pharmacies based up North are stocked with drugs from the European Union. And while many wouldn’t hesitate to take medicines purchased from countries like France and Great Britain, there’s plenty of risk involved.
The EU currently operates under a system of “parallel trade,” which allows products to be freely imported between member countries. This means that any drugs exported from the U.K. to Canada could have originated in an EU country with significantly less rigorous safety regulations, like Greece, Portugal, Latvia, or Malta.
Just last year, EU officials seized over 34 million fake pills in just two months. And in May, Irish drug enforcers confiscated over 1.7 million pounds of counterfeit and illegal drug packages. So if American customers start buying drugs over the Internet from Canadian pharmacies, they could easily wind up with tainted medicines of unknown European origin.
It’s also important to note that drugs from anywhere in Europe aren’t even legal for sale in Canada. So, when politicians say we can get “the same drugs” that Canadians get, they’re just plain wrong.
Even more worrisome is outright fraud — many “Canadian” pharmacies are actually headquartered somewhere else.
A 2005 investigation by the Food and Drug Administration 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 actually 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.
As an FDA official told Congress, “We determined there is no evidence that the dispensers of the drugs or the drugs themselves are Canadian. The registrants, technical contacts, and billing contacts for both web sites have addresses in China. The reordering website for both purchases and its registrant, technical contact, and billing contact have addresses in Belize. The drugs were shipped from Texas, with a customer service and return address in Florida.”
And in laboratory analysis, every pill failed basic purity and potency tests.
Right now, American patients that 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.
Dropping drug co-pays would also help patients stick to their prescribed treatment regimes. All too often, people skip a dose, don’t get a refill, or stop taking their drugs prematurely in order to save money. In the long run, though, not adhering to a drug regimen leaves patients less healthy — and increases national medical expenses by an estimated $300 billion annually.
Calling foreign drug importation “re-importation” is a clever way to sell the idea to the American people. But the term simply doesn’t fit with the facts. In reality, Americans would end up jeopardizing their health by purchasing unsafe drugs made in foreign countries.