The Trump administration just announced it is taking steps to introduce a “safe importation action” pilot program authorizing states, wholesalers, and pharmacists to import drugs from Canada under one scenario and from other countries under another scenario. There is no specific timeline for implementation of a plan yet. According to the Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, the goal of the initiative is to “lower prices and reduce out of pocket costs for American patients.”
It won’t work. Instead, importing prescription drugs would put our lives in danger.
Almost every Food and Drug Administration commissioner in recent history has argued as much. In 2017, a group of them wrote to Congress, stating, “Drugs purchased from foreign countries may be substandard, unsafe, adulterated, or fake” and are “likely to harm patients and consumers.”
Even drugs from developed countries like Canada can pose serious risks. In 2005, an investigation conducted by the FDA found that 85% of drugs from online pharmacies labeled as “Canadian” actually came from 27 different countries. Many of them proved to be counterfeit.Canadadrugs.com, the nation’s largest internet pharmacy, was fined $34 million by U.S. prosecutors in 2018 for selling two cancer drugs that contained no active drug ingredients.
Health Canada, the country’s public health agency, has said that it “does not assure that products being sold to U.S. citizens are safe, effective, and of high quality, and does not intend to do so in the future.”
Canada has reason to worry, too. By one estimate, if Americans had just 20% of their prescriptions filled in Canada, the country’s drug supply would be exhausted in about 180 days.
The Canadian Ministry of Health recently said, “Ensuring that Canadians have access to the medicines they need is one of our top priorities.” Officials further stated that they “will ensure there are no adverse effects to the supply or cost of prescription drugs in Canada.”
In an April briefing from Canada’s foreign ministry, officials wrote that the country, “does not support actions that could adversely affect the supply of prescription drugs in Canada.”
Even if Canada were a willing participant in this scheme, the United States still doesn’t have the means to ensure the safety of these drugs. For years, officials have worked to establish a system for tracking U.S. drugs from the moment they are manufactured to when they end up in customers’ hands. Officials can’t hold imported drugs to the same standards, so it’s impossible to trace them back to their original source.
Raiding other countries’ medicine cabinets is the wrong approach. Importing drugs means importing danger while denying Canadians access to the drugs they need.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Healthcare Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is The False Promise of Single-Payer Health Care (Encounter). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.