NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

More Americans Gambling on Unsafe Imported Drugs

November 6, 2003

Largely due to the Internet, Americans are buying more drugs than ever before from Canada and at least 25 other countries, including Austria, China, Ireland, Italy, Israel and Mexico. Indeed, a growing number of governors say they intend to purchase lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada. But recently the Bush administration has stepped up enforcement against illegal and potentially dangerous imported drugs.

Lost in the debate over drug importation and the higher price of prescription drugs is a very important issue: the health risks counterfeit medications pose to Americans.

Consider these documented examples:

  • The World Health Organization estimated in 2000 that about 8 percent of bulk drugs imported to the United States are counterfeit, unapproved or substandard.
  • A Food and Drug Administration examination of 1,153 mail parcels destined for the United States found nearly 90 percent contained medications that violated U.S. drug safety laws.
  • The majority were drugs of unknown quality and originated from Third World countries.
  • In another case, FDA officials examined drugs ordered from a supposed Canadian pharmacy in which the drugs, (including insulin) arrived in the regular mail and at room temperature (Insulin loses effectiveness at higher temperatures and is supposed to be shipped overnight to ensure it remains chilled).

The occurrence of tampering, counterfeiting and other criminal activity raises questions about drug distribution and its regulation. In most cases, perfectly safe drugs leave an easy-to-follow paper trail from manufacturer to pharmacy, hospital or licensed health care provider.

In other cases medicines may pass through several wholesalers and unregulated storefront and Internet operations. These outlets may have no information about the origin, quality, or safety of the drugs they are selling to consumers. It is not impossible for a manufacturer of bogus drugs to create its own distributor.

Source: Conrad F. Meier, "Drug Importation Roulette," Health Care News, November 1, 2003, Heartland Institute.


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