Re-Importing Prescription Drugs Called a Form of 'Russian Roulette'

By Sarah Junk | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

( - With more states pressing for the ability to re-import prescription drugs from other countries to save money, there is more attention now to how drug counterfeiters might exploit such an arrangement.

"These counterfeiters are very good," said Thomas J. McGinnis, director of pharmacy affairs for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "They don't care about patient outcomes and they're not going away."

The U.S. House Tuesday approved legislation that would effectively allow American states to buy or re-import lower-priced prescription drugs from countries with socialized medicine like Canada. Those countries, including developing nations, buy their drugs in bulk from American pharmaceutical companies in the first place, paying less than the average American consumer. In turn, they're able to re-sell the drugs for less to states concerned about the cost of treating patients on Medicaid.

The House provision, included in the $16.8-billion funding bill for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA, would bar the FDA from spending money to enforce the ban on imports of FDA-approved drugs.

"People from all over the world come to the United States for their medical care, yet Americans are forced to go all over the world for their medication," said Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who represents an Illinois district in the House and supports the re-import legislation.

President George W. Bush and Republican leaders in both houses of Congress oppose the provision so it's not expected to survive a House-Senate conference committee. However, it does have the support of Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy from Vermont.

"The White House, big drug companies and many in Congress have done all they can to thwart each consumer breakthrough," Leahy said. But those American consumers "didn't take long to figure out that the deck is heavily stacked against them," Leahy added, resulting in many of them driving across the Canadian border to buy their prescription drugs.

Experts attending Thursday's conference on the "The Growing Threat of Counterfeit Drugs" said the dangers should not be underestimated.

McGinnis said the imports would arrive from some developing countries where half of the drugs on the market are believed to be counterfeit. The FDA wouldn't have the ability or money to examine all of the foreign drugs coming into the United States, he said.

Counterfeit drugs might be mislabeled, contain incorrect strengths, or be contaminated with dangerous substances, McGinnis added. Packages are duplicated to the extent that even manufacturers say they cannot tell which are real.

"They're getting sophisticated," said McGinnis. "They're hiding behind the Internet."

Others attending the conference sponsored by the Institute for Policy Innovation warned that websites displaying Canadian flags and claiming to originate in Canada may be shipping drugs from other countries such as Belize and China.

"We're not saying that all products coming from Canada are bad," said Maureen Casey, vice president of Giuliani Partners, LLC. "The issue is you're really playing Russian roulette when you go on the Internet and do this. You don't know what you're getting into."

Both McGinnis and Casey acknowledged the desire in America for cheaper prescription drugs but they agreed that the risk to a patient's health is not worth the potential savings.

"The access to affordable medications should not be at the expense of safety," said Casey.