In an effort to reverse the continuing rise of prescription drug prices, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) are mulling the idea of allowing drug imports from Canada. Their so-called “Safe Importation Action Plan,” however, is a misnomer—the policy could expose countless Americans to potentially deadly counterfeit or tainted medication.
Counterfeit drugs are nothing new north of the border. Whether laced with toxic additives, lacking any active ingredients, or simply out of date, counterfeit drugs have been a persistent problem in Canada in recent years.
Given Canada’s reputation for cheap drugs, the problem of poor-quality medication has already crossed the border to America. Last year, one of Canada’s largest online pharmacies was fined $34 million for selling fake or misbranded prescription drugs to American consumers.Although the FDA proposes to regulate the trade in foreign drugs, history shows that federal authorities have failed to do so in the past. The inability to prosecute the foreign nationals who send fake medication to American pharmacies means there is little deterrence for criminals.
Opening the border to further drug imports would give foreign criminal groups even easier access to the United States’ healthcare market. Recently, Treasury officials have highlighted how the same foreign criminal groups who produce fake cancer medication also manufacture fentanyl, the drug at the heart of America’s opioid crisis.
Counterfeit drugs, and specifically those tainted with fentanyl, have already been found across the United States. Minnesota prosecutors say that in 2018 the musician Prince most likely died from counterfeit painkillers that were laced with fentanyl. But that wasn’t a lone case. Consumers in 22 states have died from counterfeits that were spiked with the drug.
Importing medication from Canada would create a huge opportunity for counterfeiters due to the relatively small size of the Canadian market. Researchers at the University of Texas, Austin estimate that if just 20% of American brand-name prescriptions were filled in Canada, the country would run out of drugs in 201 days. That would open the gateway for unverified, potentially tainted drugs to fill the void and eventually find their way to the United States.
This might all sound alarmist, but four former commissioners of the FDA in 2017 wrote to Congress in opposition to importing drugs from Canada, due to the variety of risks it would pose.
Despite the fact that the Department of Health and Human Services is spearheading the misguided initiative, the department’s own Secretary Alex Azar last year described the idea of importing drugs from Canada as a “gimmick.” The Secretary is well aware of the risks it would pose to American consumers, saying, “The last thing we need is open borders for unsafe drugs in search of savings.”
The federal government needs to put American consumers’ health first when it comes to lowering prescription drug prices. But it’s just bad policy if the drugs do more damage than good.
Opening the floodgates to tainted, counterfeit drugs is simply not the answer. American Patients deserve better.