Cheap Drug Imports - Who Wins?

By Gregory M. Lamb writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 16, 2003 | Go to article overview

Cheap Drug Imports - Who Wins?


Gregory M. Lamb writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Kathryn Stewart sees the impact of high drug prices first hand. Low-income patients frequently get released from her Chicago hospital with a supply of prescription medication that will last only two or three days. And they can't afford to buy more.

So when Americans head to Canada, either in person or via the Internet, to buy lower-cost drugs illegally, she applauds. Claims by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that such drugs are unsafe "has a hollow ring with the American public," says Dr. Stewart, medical director of care management at Mt. Sinai Hospital. It "makes the FDA look like it is just a protectionist arm for the US drug industry."

Stewart is not alone. As the price of prescription medication soars and as the FDA begins to toughen its stance against drug importers, support for drug imports is building in the halls of Congress, in statehouses, even in city halls. At stake is a larger and more ticklish issue for the pharmaceutical industry. Even as they plow profits back into research and warn of the dangers of imports, drugmakers risk a growing backlash from consumers and politicians that could lead to more government control of their industry. The battle over imports is merely the latest manifestation of pent-up frustration.

"This is a very ugly issue for the pharmaceutical industry," says Humphrey Taylor, chairman of The Harris Poll. "As importation of drugs grow - and it looks set to grow a lot more - drug companies run a big risk of making more enemies as they fight to prevent importation. This would fuel the growing backlash against the industry."

In a Wall Street Journal Online/Harris Interactive poll released a week ago, 77 percent of Americans surveyed said they think it is "unreasonable" for pharmaceutical companies to stop Canadian pharmacies from selling drugs over the Internet to Americans.

Already, battle lines are forming. In July, a bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow Americans to buy prescription drugs from 25 industrialized countries, including Canada. The legislation has stalled in the Senate, where 53 senators, more than enough to defeat the measure, have indicated they oppose it. Supporters are trying to include a drug-importation provision in the broad Medicare reform bill being shaped by House and Senate conferees this week.

The FDA and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), a powerful lobbying group representing pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, remain adamantly opposed to legalizing imports. In a statement, PhRMA says the House legislation "would jeopardize the safety of our nation's medicine supply and import foreign governments' price controls." Drug manufacturers also contend that price controls in the United States would smother incentives to invest in research to develop new drugs.

Nevertheless, states such as Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Minnesota are looking into buying cheaper foreign drugs. Nearly all of the Democratic presidential candidates, including Howard Dean, a medical doctor, have expressed support for legalizing prescription drug imports. So has the AARP, the lobbying group for older Americans.

Perhaps the most flamboyant support comes from the city of Springfield, Mass. The mayor, Michael Albano, has garnered national headlines by having his city buy drugs from Canada for its workers, retirees, and their dependents. The mayor claims his city could save up to $9 million a year doing so.

He's also asked the city's pension fund to divest itself of pharmaceutical- company stocks, saying it would be inconsistent to claim that drug companies are "gouging" the public and then profit from them. …

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