More debate, caution needed on importing medicine from Canada

What others say:

Posted: Monday, January 03, 2005

As a matter of principle, no reasonable person would disagree with those who say Americans should be allowed to import prescription drugs from Canada.

Many drugs cost less there. Seniors struggling to make ends meet on a fixed income, the argument goes, shouldn't have to pay more simply to line the pockets of rich pharmaceutical companies — nor should anyone else, for that matter.

The Heritage Foundation, however, points out that there would be some unintended consequences.

For one thing, Heritage notes, a recent U.S. Health and Human Services report concluded that Internet pharmacies and others who import drugs "have been documented in some cases to provide consumers with inferior products that are not the same as U.S.-approved versions."

In other words, if you pay less than one might expect, you may get less than you expected. When you buy counterfeit or substandard drugs, the treatments may not work — and your condition might even get worse.

The U.S. government could take steps to oversee Canadian drug dispensers and put the legitimate ones on an "approved" list, but Heritage quotes both the HHS report and an earlier Congressional Budget Office study as saying the oversight would eat up a large portion of the savings.

Even more importantly, Heritage cites studies saying the loss of revenue would force U.S. drug companies to cut their research and development budgets. That means fewer new drugs to alleviate and cure debilitating and life-threatening illnesses.

Consumers want affordable prescriptions, but they also need better methods to treat conditions that they might develop in the future. That is a delicate balance, and it could be tipped too heavily by widespread importation.

One possible reform, it seems to us, would be to loosen the noose around the necks of drug companies when their products produce negative outcomes that neither they nor government regulators anticipated.

All drugs have side effects, and not all are apparent at first. The less damages that pharmaceutical companies must pay, the more they could invest in research without raising prices.

More debate is needed, but keep in mind that the public is served by results — not just statements of principle.

— Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville

Dec. 30

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