Anti-terrorism on drugs

August 15, 2004

THE ACTING CHIEF of the Food and Drug Administration made headlines last week when he said his primary concern about allowing Americans to reimport U.S.-made medicines from Canada is tampering by terrorists.

At first, Lester M. Crawford's comment sounded like a particularly lame excuse by the Bush administration to continue protecting the interests of its deep-pocketed friends in the pharmaceutical industry. Drugmakers hate the idea of Americans taking advantage of discounts the Canadian government negotiates for its citizens. That would play hell with the profit margins of what is a highly successful industry.

Examined more closely, though, this latest explanation for opposing the drug reimportation movement building in many parts of the country, including Maryland, forms a perfect synergy between two key election issues on which Mr. Bush appears to be losing ground: drug costs and terrorism.

Unfortunately for the president, Dr. Crawford combined the two in a way that only weakens Mr. Bush's case on both fronts. Terrorism is used so often as the rationale for unpopular administration positions, it's no wonder polls show Americans are becoming increasingly skeptical about Mr. Bush's efforts to keep them safe.

The drive to knock down FDA barriers to Canadian drug imports is a desperate cry for help with the huge problem of inflated drug prices in this country. Allowing such imports wouldn't solve the problem. Canadian pharmacies say they don't have the supplies to handle more than a limited retail trade from the United States.

But continuing to block prescription drug imports won't make the price problem go away either. The U.S. government needs to start negotiating with pharmaceutical companies for its own drug discounts that would apply directly to Medicare, and set the standard for other buyers here.

Of course, the pharmaceutical companies really hate that idea and engage in scare tactics of their own, warning that shrinking profits would discourage investment in the development of new medicinal cures.

Mr. Bush may not be able to stall indefinitely, though.

A recent survey shows Medicare beneficiaries are giving raspberries to the 2003 prescription drug bill he had hoped would boost his support with older voters, a critical group.

Most don't think the measure will help them personally and want it amended to allow imports from Canada and to eliminate a prohibition on Medicare negotiations with drugmakers for discounts. Democratic challenger John Kerry is promising to pursue both changes if he is elected.

The drug price issue may not be pivotal enough to decide the election -- unless, of course, Mr. Kerry gains so much on Mr. Bush in the terrorism/security category that he is able to neutralize what has been the president's greatest advantage.

So, Dr. Crawford's linking of the two issues makes sense politically. But if he was trying to squelch the demand for relief from high drug costs by stoking fears of a terrorist biomedical attack, that's worse than lame. It's downright irresponsible.

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