Last week, Sally Pipes informed Congress on these pages that “Drug importation is a dangerous idea that won’t die” because it will hurt pharmaceutical innovation and endanger consumers. News flash, Sally, drug importation is far more than an “idea” – it is the main source of active pharmaceutical ingredients, 80 percent, that go into our “American meds” and 40 percent of finished meds are imported and sold in U.S. pharmacies. The question is who can do the importing?

Well, technically, individuals are banned from importing medication for their own use, allegedly for their own protection. Nonetheless, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, due to high domestic prices, five million Americans import meds for personal use each year. The FDA has never prosecuted anyone – as that would be unethical and open to public ridicule. Many of those five million would skip needed medication without that option.


I’ve written an extensive report that was sent to and received by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce called “Online Pharmacies, Personal Drug Importation and The Public Health that clearly identifies how safe international online pharmacies save lives and keep people healthy. We’re waiting for them to respond.

The problem with importing prescription drugs for personal use is that there are thousands of rogue online pharmacies. Ms. Pipes is right to say so. But the FDA, Congress and millions of Americans know that there are safe international online pharmacies as well. No, the FDA can’t guarantee the safety of medications sold in foreign pharmacies but that doesn’t mean that they are not safe as long as they come from licensed pharmacies in Canada and other countries. There’s just no evidence to prove otherwise.

Furthermore, while it is one of the world’s best drug regulatory authorities in the world, the FDA can’t even guarantee the safety of the U.S. drug supply. You’ll recall that 81 Americans died from tainted Heparin, a blood thinner, in 2008 and 64 died in 2012 from tainted steroid injections– all from the lawful supply chain. Also, a GAO report from 2012 found that there are thousands of foreign drug manufacturing plants that export pharmaceuticals to the U.S. – legally – that FDA may never have inspected.

To save pharmaceutical innovation and protect patients from dangerous drugs, Pipes urges Congress to vote down legislation to facilitate personal drug importation that Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLive coverage: McSally clashes with Sinema in Arizona Senate debate Is there difference between good and bad online election targeting? Murkowski not worried about a Palin challenge MORE (R-Ariz.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharIs there difference between good and bad online election targeting? Election Countdown: Minnesota Dems worry Ellison allegations could cost them key race | Dems struggle to mobilize Latino voters | Takeaways from Tennessee Senate debate | Poll puts Cruz up 9 in Texas Clusters of polio-like illness in the US not a cause for panic MORE (D-Minn.) will likely introduce as part of a larger vote on the budget. On the innovation front, it’s well-known that the figures touted by the pharmaceutical industry for how much it costs to discover and bring a new drug to market and their ardent supporters are inflated and that pharmaceutical R&D would yield superb advances even with lower U.S. drug prices. Still, Pipes is to some degree correct: if drug companies make less profit due to increased personal drug importation then there’s less left over for R&D (and marketing and TV ads for drugs, too, but that’s for another article). That economic reality is not enough to justify blocking people who can’t afford medications today because drug prices are a raging and immediate public health threat.

In fact, the Commonwealth Fund released their bi-annual survey in January showing that 35 million Americans did not fill a script in 2014 due to the price of medications. The costs to society of prescription non-adherence, a fancy phrase for people skipping their meds or taking them the wrong way, is staggering. The FDA has even estimated $290 billion in additional healthcare costs. The National Consumers League informs us that 125,000 Americans die each year from prescription non-adherence. That data is from 1998. I shudder to think what it might be today. Maybe Congress will hold a hearing on that as they debate drug importation legislation.

Pipes writes that the FDA “goes to great lengths to ensure that prescription medicines meet rigorous standards of safety and effectiveness…None of this is true of imported drugs -- even medicines arriving from places like Canada and the UK. In fact, patients have little way of knowing whether their foreign medicines are potentially deadly counterfeits.” Who really believes that medicines sold in Canadian and UK pharmacies are less safe and effective than the ones sold here? As to what patients know? Companies like ours already provide verifications and price comparisons to help consumers worldwide avoid rogue online pharmacies. Peer-reviewed studies in prestigious journals show that the medications sold by PharmacyChecker-approved foreign websites are the exact same as those sold here or foreign versions but much less expensive.

If you read the legislative history, drug importation laws were created to stop people from importing medication without FDA-approval for re-sale, which is a crime. But it’s unconscionable to apply those laws to individuals who need importation for their own use.

Let’s forget about the Internet for a minute and the practice of international mail order pharmacy. One of FDA’s warnings to consumers is that Canadian online pharmacies aren’t really Canadian but dangerous rogue sites. Okay. Why is it illegal for an American who can’t afford medication at a U.S. pharmacy to go to a Canadian pharmacy, in person, buy a prescription drug for their own use, and bring it back home? If someone “reimports” a drug for their own use, and is charged a second time for doing so, he or she can go to jail for 10 years. That type of bizarre legal prohibition weighs heavy on our cherished rights to life and liberty -- and is downright un-American. Fancy that: Americans are toking it up with illegal drugs in Washington and Colorado (and I support decriminalization of that too!) but you can’t buy that less expensive legal medication in Canada to treat your high blood pressure, asthma or diabetes to protect your own health.  

The McCain-Klobuchar legislation would simply put an end to this madness by making the purchase of non-controlled prescription medication from a Canadian pharmacy legal. It would require the FDA “to publish a list of approved Canadian pharmacies, including their website address, from which individuals may purchase prescription drugs in accordance with this Act.” Passing McCain-Klobuchar’s drug importation legislation is a great idea that won’t die because it’s pro-consumer, pro-drug affordability, and pro-American.

Levitt the vice president, a company that  verifies U.S. and international online pharmacies and compares prescription drug prices.