A U.S. district court in Montana just imposed a $34 million fine on Canada Drugs, an online pharmacy charged with selling counterfeit medications to unsuspecting Americans. Some of the drugs contained no active ingredients.
Canada Drugs isn’t the only online pharmacy that puts patients’ lives in serious jeopardy. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy recently examined more than 11,000 online pharmacies and found that 96 percent were operating illegally.
Many of these sites claim to be Canadian. But they often have no physical presence up north — just a post-office box for an address. They source their medications from the developing world, where counterfeiting is rampant.
Incredibly, many politicians want to make it easier for Americans to buy from these “Canadian” pharmacies. Lawmakers in nine states have recently considered bills that would permit American patients or pharmacies to import huge quantities of drugs from Canada. Congressional Democrats, led by Senator Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), are also pushing hard for importation.
If they succeed, the influx of counterfeit drugs could precipitate a public-health catastrophe. Widespread importation would also stifle research and development of legitimate new drugs.
The global drug supply is awash in dangerous products. One in every 10 pills in low- and middle-income countries is counterfeit.
I was born and raised in Canada. It’s a beautiful nation. And it’s quite wealthy; indeed, Canada is the world’s tenth largest economy. So most Americans assume that the nation’s drug supply is safe. While that’s largely true within Canada’s borders, many “Canadian” drugs don’t actually come from our northern neighbor. An FDA investigation of illegally imported medications revealed that half of the pills were advertised as Canadian, but 85 percent originated in other countries.
This makes sense. As Canada’s health minister explained in 2005, “Canada cannot be the drugstore for the United States of America. Two hundred eighty million people can’t expect us to supply drugs to them.”
The FDA doesn’t have authority to regulate online foreign pharmacies. And Canadian health officials have explicitly warned that they can’t vouch for the quality of drugs sold to foreigners through these sites.
In other words, patients risk their lives every time they fill prescriptions through online pharmacies that claim to be based in Canada. The risk is even greater now that counterfeiters are lacing many pills with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin. Last July, law enforcement in Alberta seized 130,000 counterfeit pills that contained fentanyl.
Passing legislation to encourage drug importation would expose more Americans to harmful counterfeits. Such laws would also discourage pharmaceutical research and development.
Here’s why. Pharmaceutical products are cheaper in many nations, including Canada, because those governments tightly control drug prices. Importing artificially cheap drugs effectively imports the price controls too.
Developing a drug is a long, expensive process. It costs about $2.6 billion to bring a drug to market. Most compounds never make it out of the lab. Less than 12 percent of experimental drugs that enter clinical trials receive FDA approval.
Importation would reduce drug companies’ revenue from the relative handful of successful products that do reach pharmacy shelves. Drug developers would consequently scale back on new research.
One hopes that the recent fine levied against Canada Drugs will serve as a wake-up call to politicians who favor drug importation. Their bills would expose Americans to dangerous counterfeit medications and decimate pharmaceutical research.