No surprises on drug importing

February 1, 2005

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) task force on drug importation issued a final report in December that lived up to all expectations by opposing any broad opening of U.S. borders to prescription drugs from other countries. The 13-member panel headed by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona ruled out legalizing individual importing for personal use, insisting that such a program would cost up to $3 billion to regulate and would let in a flood of unapproved and unsafe products.

WASHINGTON, D.C.-The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) task force on drug importation issued a final report in December that lived up to all expectations by opposing any broad opening of U.S. borders to prescription drugs from other countries. The 13-member panel headed by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona ruled out legalizing individual importing for personal use, insisting that such a program would cost up to $3 billion to regulate and would let in a flood of unapproved and unsafe products-an unattractive prospect at a time of mounting concerns about the safety of the U.S. drug supply.

NOTHING GAINED The panel acknowledged, however, that it is feasible for the United States to establish a large-scale commercial system to reimport low-cost prescription drugs from Canada, but that such a system would be very expensive to oversee and would not save consumers much money in the end. The report (available at http://www.hhs.gov/importtaskforce/report1220.pdf) advises Congress to permit legal importing only for certain high-volume, high-cost drugs. Such an initiative would require a system for product tracking, pedigree maintenance and frequent import sampling by FDA, and probably would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to establish and maintain. These costs, combined with wholesaler transaction fees, would further erode any healthcare savings and dry up industry revenues that otherwise would fund new drug development.

Although the panel's conclusions may be valid, the report was roundly criticized for presenting the same old Bush administration scare tactics largely to protect U.S. manufacturers from foreign competition. And just in case some legislators keep pushing for legal drug importing, Canadian health officials said they might enact new laws and policies to block massive drug exports to the U.S. by Canadian online pharmacies-apparently with strong encouragement from White House trade officials.