How to make our counterfeit product problem worse
On paper, the concept of importing cheap drugs from foreign countries like Canada, France, or the United Kingdom to address our domestic concerns about prescription drug prices is appealing. Six states have already launched drug importation programs. Others, including Indiana, have seen legislative efforts in recent years to do the same.
Having spent years as a pharmacist and researching patient safety, administration and health policy, I can attest that current proposals to import drugs wholesale – even from seemingly safe and friends – are a bad idea. And, they are a real threat to American patients.
Politicians who promote importing drugs as a quick and easy solution to financial relief for American patients at the pharmacy tend to omit important facts. The first is that Canadian officials do not want to sell us their drugs. Canada does not manufacture pharmaceuticals domestically. They have to import their prescription drugs and therefore experience frequent shortages. To protect its own citizens, the Canadian government has enacted laws prohibiting its licensed wholesalers from sending drugs into our country.
Therefore, any shipment of pharmaceutical products that we receive from Canada would come from unknown merchants who themselves would have imported the drugs from other countries such as China or India.
In November 2020, after Florida became the first state to propose a drug import plan from Canada, I helped conduct a survey of pharmacists about the policy. Less than 12% of respondents said they would trust the safety and quality of imported medicines, and almost 60% believed that there would not be adequate monitoring and safety of medicines imported from the Canada.
Additionally, 70% expressed concern about changes they should make to pharmacy operations to increase safety. Pharmacists are the last line of defense against unsafe and poor quality drugs. If they have concerns, we should all have concerns.
Equally disturbing is the fact that we are already currently experiencing a flood of counterfeit (substandard and/or falsified) medical products crossing our borders. In our region alone, recent events prove the prevalence and dangers of counterfeit medicines and related products.
For example, during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, US Customs and Border Patrol intercepted 4,650 fake test kits destined for citizens of Indianapolis. These criminals took advantage of panicked people who wanted available test products and attempted to sell them merchandise not approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Then, earlier this year, Cincinnati Customs officers seized more than $750,000 worth of illegally imported prescription drugs and food items sold in Indiana and Kentucky. These food items included jellies and honey mixed with the chemical ingredients found in Viagra. Over a six-month period, Indianapolis Customs officials saw a 117% increase in contraband seizures, including more than 700 shipments of illegal and counterfeit drugs.
In short, there are many reasons to rethink proposals that would allow wholesale importation of foreign drugs. No matter what country we plan to import from, US patients will be left at the mercy of less than reputable sellers and subject to an increasing likelihood of adulterated or substandard products.
There are better approaches to making prescription drugs more affordable in this country. In this case, quick and easy is not safe and effective. Quite simply, policy makers should focus on ways to reduce pharmacists’ fees without unnecessarily endangering the health and safety of patients and consumers.
Indiana is already experiencing the counterfeit drug and medical product crisis that is impacting the world. Our citizens deserve better and we must not fool ourselves into assuming that we can safely import medicines with these proposals into this dangerous environment.
—John Hertig, Carmel
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