Drug company VP backs reimportation

Pfizer marketing official makes appearance with lawmakers opposing ban

The Nation

September 24, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - An executive of the world's largest drug company broke ranks with the industry yesterday and urged Congress to pass legislation allowing lower-cost prescription drugs to be imported.

Dr. Peter Rost, a vice president for marketing at Pfizer, said the U.S. drug industry has misled the public, exaggerating the danger of imported drugs.

"Right now, drug companies are testifying that imported drugs are unsafe," he told reporters on Capitol Hill. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Rost's surprising claim put him in league with consumer advocates pushing for an end to the federal ban on the reimportation of U.S.-produced pharmaceuticals that were initially sold abroad. These advocates argue that the prices charged in foreign countries are often less than the cost of the same drugs bought in the United States.

Pfizer, the manufacturer of Viagra, Zoloft and Lipitor, and other drug firms counter that reimportation wouldn't lower prices drastically and that consumers could be exposed to dangerous or ineffective counterfeit drugs. The drug makers also maintain that their financial losses under drug reimportation would eat into funding for research and development.

Charles Hardwick, senior vice president of governmental affairs for Pfizer, blasted Rost in a letter to the lawmakers who had invited him to their news conference.

"Dr. Rost has no qualifications to speak on importation, no responsibilities in this area at Pfizer," Hardwick wrote, and his "sudden interest in importation came as a surprise, simply because he had never made any effort" to join the Pfizer team researching the issue.

Rost told reporters that he made his views public first because he knew bringing the matter up with his superiors at Pfizer would be useless.

Pfizer, based in New York City, did not return phone calls seeking information about Rost's employment status.

Rost gave his scathing indictment of the drug industry at the invitation of a bipartisan group of senators and House members who support legislation to allow reimportation. The House passed legislation last summer lifting the reimportation ban, but the Republican leadership in the Senate has not brought the issue to a floor vote.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a vocal advocate of ending the reimportation ban, called the prices charged by drug companies in America "unfair." "Miracle drugs offer no miracles to those who can't afford to take them," the North Dakota Democrat said.

Drug prices in the United States are by far the highest in the world, according to Rost and backers of reimportation.

Rep. Gil Gutknecht, a Minnesota Republican who supports ending the ban, said 10 tablets of the popular antidepressant Prozac cost more than $90 at a Rochester, Minn., pharmacy but less than $20 at a drugstore in Munich, Germany.

The issue of Rost's standing at Pfizer was not lost on the legislators who had asked him to come forward. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Missouri Republican, presented him with military fatigues to wear to work today.

Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist has said it was unlikely that the Senate would take up the issue before the Nov. 2 elections because more urgent business had to be handled first.

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