Monday, June 21, 2004

Opinion: A dose of reality

Opinion: A dose of reality
A dose of reality
By Editorial
Published June 21, 2004

Listening to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Americans might think the gravest threat to their health and safety is prescription drugs imported from Canada. The FDA has fashioned itself as a watchdog guarding the border: issuing dire warnings about the safety of Canadian drugs and those bought over the Internet, rejecting state plans to import cheaper drugs from the north and threatening to punish anyone who facilitates such commerce. A new study, however, shows the FDA is barking up the wrong tree.

The General Accounting Office recently purchased 13 different drugs over the Internet from dozens of pharmacy sites in the United States, Canada and a variety of other countries and reported its findings to Congress. The agency focused on three questions: Could the drugs be obtained without a proper prescription? Were the drugs handled correctly? And to what extent were the online pharmacies reliable? The results should open some eyes in Washington, where the Bush administration and congressional Republicans have tried to block access to Canadian drugs.

Only the Canadian pharmacies in the study had 100 percent compliance with the requirement for a patient-provided prescription. Most of the U.S. pharmacies faltered on this point, with only five of 24 requiring an existing prescription. None of the pharmacies in the other countries - including Mexico, India and Costa Rica - did so. Although some pharmacies did not package the drugs properly or include adequate instructions, the fewest problems were encountered with those in Canada and the United States.

The 13 drugs the GAO purchased are top sellers - such as Celebrex, Lipitor and OxyContin - and some have been counterfeited in the past. Of the purchases made by the GAO, four of the products turned out to be counterfeits, though none came from Canada or the United States. The bottom line was that Canadian pharmacies fared vary well (sometimes better) when compared to those in the United States, while most of the problems uncovered were found with drugs coming from other countries. The main fault the agency found with Canadian drugs was that their labels or manufacturing plants often had not been approved by the FDA, yet in every case the chemical composition of the drugs was acceptable.

Those findings should put pressure on Congress - on whose behalf the GAO operates - to rewrite laws that currently ban the importation of Canadian drugs. (Those laws are not aggressively enforced, yet.) A growing number of Americans have found that it is cheaper to send their prescriptions to Canada than to purchase them through American drug programs such as the new Medicare discount cards. The Canadian government forces drug companies to negotiate their prices, while Congress - under the sway of the pharmaceutical industry - has made it illegal for Medicare to do so. Yet this study shows that there is no dropoff in quality with Canadian drugs.

As the GAO pointed out, consumers may have reasons to be wary of Internet drug purchases, but the fact that the drugs come from Canada is not one of them.


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