Halt the dangerous march toward drug importation

April 28, 2004|By Morton Kondracke

WASHINGTON -- Despite fierce opposition from the Bush administration and evidence that it's multiply dangerous to the nation's health, pressure is mounting to legalize mass drug importation from overseas.

And it's coming not only from Democrats such as John Kerry, but from Republicans as well.

Lately, the conservative Republican governors of Minnesota and New Hampshire, Tim Pawlenty and Craig Benson, have defied federal law to set up Web sites enabling their citizens to import drugs from Canada. Wisconsin has one, too, and others are in the planning stage in Illinois and Michigan.

In Congress, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has introduced legislation to permit imports first from Canada and, three years from now, from the 25 countries in the European Union, three others in the European Free Trade Association, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Even though mass drug importation is a terrible idea -- it will retard pharmaceutical research and medical discoveries that can save lives and will allow entry of unsafe counterfeit drugs -- the idea has polls, politics, high drug prices and public demand behind it.

The only barriers are the short congressional election year calendar, opposition from House leaders and the distant prospect of a presidential veto. Even before a veto, President Bush needs to make foreign price controls (and the costs they pass on to American consumers) a trade issue. His first opportunity will be at the Group of Eight Summit of Industrialized Nations in June.

Price controls are the reason for a huge difference in prices for drugs in the United States vs. other countries, where governments control prices. U.S. consumers can get their drugs cheaper from U.S. online pharmacies, but they are still cheaper abroad. It's estimated that 2 million Americans are buying their drugs abroad, either individually or through states.

A New York Times survey last week showed that the Abbott Laboratories AIDS drug Norvir costs $715 for a one-month supply in the United States and $540 from Drugstore.com, but $59 in Canada and $61 in the Netherlands.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson has warned Mr. Pawlenty that he is encouraging citizens to purchase "unapproved, illegal drugs" that neither the Food and Drug Administration, the Canadian government nor the states will guarantee as safe.

Indeed, the FDA has intercepted thousands of drugs, ostensibly from approved Canadian pharmacies, that originate in India, Pakistan or Thailand and were often counterfeits, sometimes adulterated and bereft of any medical properties whatsoever.

Senator Grassley promises to address the safety problem by authorizing the FDA to inspect all incoming drugs with money raised by user fees charged to foreign exporters. His bills contain no estimates of the cost, but it will be huge and the machinery will be hard to put into effect.

Of course, the cost will be passed on to consumers.

Mr. Grassley also has come up with a device to prevent drug companies from denying extra supplies to other countries to discourage them from exporting to the United States, as a number of companies are doing: He would limit their ability to deduct advertising and promotion expenses from their taxes.

To safeguard innovation, a major responsibility lies with the Bush administration to educate the public and Congress that price controls -- domestic or imported -- will retard research into dread diseases. It also needs to explain the fundamental cause of disparities with price control countries -- that is, most countries.

Consumers in price control countries cover only the manufacturing cost of drugs, not the research cost, which averages $800 million per drug. These same price controls have cost Europe its drug research industries, which have moved en masse to the United States.

The drumbeat for importation could possibly wane come June, when Medicare discount cards reduce drug costs.

But for now, the fatal march toward importing foreign price controls and unsafe drugs goes on.

The issues of price disparities and research sharing deserve to be raised by Mr. Bush at the G-8 summit. Here's to hoping it makes the agenda.

Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call and a Fox News analyst.

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