Importation is a national security issue

John McCain and Barack Obama have long been proponents of lifting the ban on foreign drug importation. Both claim the move would reduce the nation’s healthcare costs by giving Americans access to cheap pills from abroad. Now, according to recent announcements from their advisors, they are both reconsidering their support for such a move.

This is a promising development.

To date, 81 Americans have died from taking tainted heparin manufactured in China. In addition, right now in China, contaminated baby formula has sickened 53,000 children and killed at least three.

These deaths should serve as a chilling reminder of the dangers posed by unfettered drug importation. Most foreign governments have pharmaceutical safety regulations that pale in comparison to America’s.

The recent heparin fiasco is proof positive of that. The FDA has admitted that it had not inspected the Chinese plant responsible for the tainted pills before it approved the plant’s products for sale — a clerical error sent inspectors to the wrong plant with a similar sounding name.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the FDA inspected only 13 out of 714 approved Chinese pharmaceutical firms last year. That is down from an all-time high of 18 in 2004.

Worldwide, the average foreign drug manufacturer importing into the United States inspected only once every eight to 12 years. American plants, on the other hand, are checked at least every two years.

Unfortunately, drugs imported from “Canada” are not any safer.

To be sure, many perfectly safe pharmaceuticals are manufactured in Canada. However, when an American buys a drug from a pharmacy that claims to be headquartered in Canada, there is no guarantee that the shipment will contain drugs that were actually manufactured there.

In 2004, FDA researchers purchased three commonly prescribed prescription drugs from an online pharmacy claiming to be “located in and operated out of Canada.” None of the drugs was actually made in Canada, and in lab tests, every single one of them failed the FDA’s standards for purity and potency.

Unfortunately, these results were not surprising. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 10 percent of the global drug supply is counterfeit.

Given the facts, it is shocking that the presidential candidates ever would have supported foreign drug importation. As Rudy Giuliani noted to the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2004, “It seems counter-intuitive to contemplate opening our borders with regard to our medicine supply when in all other aspects of border security and protection, we as a country are looking for ways to tighten security.”

McCain has staked his campaign on national security. Obama has styled himself as a new breed of legislator who will put sound policy before politics. An influx of dangerous foreign pharmaceuticals would jeopardize the health of millions of Americans.

It is good to hear that both presidential candidates are reassessing their support for foreign drug importation. Let us hope this newfound awareness translates into a real change in policy.

Sally C. Pipes is president and CEO of the Pacific Research Institute. Her next book, The Top Ten Myths of American Health Care, to be released this fall.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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