Canada may limit drug exports to U.S.

With the Canadian government reportedly on the verge of announcing a ban on bulk exports of prescription drugs, supporters of drug importation in Congress maintain they will press on in their efforts to provide Americans with greater access to less expensive medicines from north of the border.

Canada’s health minister, Ujjal Dosanjh, could make an announcement as soon as this week on his government’s plans to restrict the flow of prescription drugs to the United States, the Winnipeg Free Press first reported Monday. Calls to the Canadian health ministry were not returned by press time.

At a meeting of the House of Commons’ Health Committee on June 13, Dosanjh foreshadowed the key elements of the impending policy. “We will enhance and systematize our drug-supply monitoring activity, and if necessary we will use export controls to protect human health and our nation’s drug supply,” Dosanjh said, according to a transcript.

If Canada only places restrictions on bulk exports, rather than on individual consumers buying drugs online or at Canadian retail stores, the policy would have a limited effect on legislation being considered in Congress, aides said.

The specter of several drug importation bills’ gathering support in Congress seems to have galvanized Canadian worries about their drugs’ being siphoned off to meet the demands of its massive neighbor. The Commons committee and Dosanjh each has expressed concern about the legislation.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a chief sponsor of a drug importation measure, suggested another motivation for Canadian policymakers’ actions: pressure from a “coercive drug industry” in the United States. “This demonstrates the strength and the reach of the pharmaceutical industry,” Dorgan said.

Drug companies “have been trying to strong-arm the Canadians” for several years, he said. Dorgan pointed to actions taken by some drug makers in recent years to restrict the supply of medicines to Canada to discourage the sale of those drugs to U.S. consumers. He noted that under his bill (S. 334) companies that limited drug supplies would be subject to restraint of trade actions.

Dorgan and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) are the sponsors of one of two leading contenders in the Senate this year, along with a measure (S. 109) sponsored by Sen. David Vitter (D-La.). Corresponding bills, H.R. 700 and H.R. 320, have been introduced in the House by Reps. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) and Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.), respectively. Each of the bills would promote access to drugs from Canada as well as other countries.

The White House and the GOP leadership in both chambers oppose efforts to relax restrictions on the trade of prescription drugs from abroad. Nevertheless, Senate supporters have said they are close to garnering sufficient support to force a floor vote on one of the bills. Gutknecht’s bill passed the House 243-186 in July 2003; he is weighing a strategy to secure time on the floor again.

Adversaries of drug importation regularly cite doubts about the safety of medicines brought in from abroad, but proponents often point to Canada as a paragon of safety. Any actions taken by Canada that would circumvent exports of their drugs could enable opponents to highlight further perceived shortcomings in the safeguards used by other countries, but congressional aides said that argument would not sway backers of importation.

“I don’t think it affects the politics at all” in Congress, said Jeffrey Connor, communications director for Emerson. Gutknecht’s communications director, Bryan Anderson, expressed confidence based on the broad support for past bills but conceded that “it might take a little bit more time to convince some folks” than before Canada began to consider new policies. Preston Hartman, Snowe’s press secretary, said that “there is something to people being more comfortable with Canada,” but he also dismissed the notion that importation would lose support as a result of new Canadian policies.