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"Canadian" Drugs: Made in China By: Peter Pitts
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, October 30, 2008

Although it has gone relatively unnoticed amid all the financial turmoil, it recently emerged that Sens. Obama and McCain are reconsidering their views on prescription drug importation. While neither candidate has officially reversed his position, it's now clear that both campaigns recognize the dangers associated with the practice.

This is great news, as those dangers are both real and numerous. And the oft-touted benefit of importation -- namely that it will reduce healthcare spending -- has been thoroughly discredited.

To start, let's take a look at spending. While advocates of drug importation routinely trumpet a 2004 Congressional Budget Office report which estimated that legalized importation could save $50 billion over 10 years, they fail to mention that that represents just a 1 percent reduction in total drug spending.

That's not to mention the as-yet-unknown cost of providing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with the resources necessary to monitor drugs coming in from other countries. As it is, the FDA is poorly equipped to oversee drug safety.

Just this year, for example, tainted shipments of the blood thinner Heparin slipped past the FDA and made it to the American market, killing at least 81 people. Legalizing drug importation would only make another tragedy like this more likely.

Many supporters of importation believe that, so long as the drugs come in from safe, developed countries like Canada and Britain, the threat of importing tainted drugs is minimal. But that's simply not true.

Because of parallel trade agreements among the European Union's member states, drugs purchased from a pharmacy in Britain or France could easily have originated in Latvia, Malta, Cyprus or another country with a less-than-ideal regulatory system.

And, as for buying drugs from Canada, that's hardly a safe bet either. So long as a drug is sent to Canada for "export only," it's not subject to the Canadian regulatory system. So drugs coming out of Canada could easily originate in Europe, China, or India.

Given these risks and the lack of cost-savings, it's unsurprising that state-level programs legalizing drug importation have been enormously unpopular. In Illinois, for instance, Governor Rod Blagojevich initiated the "I-Save-Rx" program, which allowed residents to purchase prescription drugs from Canada. Ending after only 19 months, the program was an unmitigated embarrassment for the Governor, with only .02 percent of Illinois residents enrolled.

A similar importation program in Boston proved equally unpopular. Just the other week, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced that the program -- which he spearheaded in the 2004 -- will soon be suspended. At the time of the announcement, only 16 eligible Bostonians were receiving drugs from Canada.

But there are more than health and safety concerns surrounding prescription drug importation -- it's also a national security issue. According to a recent report for the Federal Joint Terrorism Task Force, a pro-Hezbollah terrorist group has already been caught moving prescription drugs through Canada and into the U.S. In other words, legalizing drug importation would make it easier for our enemies to attack us by flooding the U.S. market with contaminated prescription drugs.

Legalized importation would create massive health and safety risk and put unbearable financial strain on the already-underfunded FDA -- all while failing to save the American public much money. It's easy to see why both Barack Obama and John McCain, after years of public support for drug importation, are beginning to quietly back away from the issue.

Peter J. Pitts is President of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a former FDA Associate Commissioner.

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