Drug Imports Create Practical Problems, Solve Political Ones

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The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed an amendment allowing Americans to buy prescription drugs from Canada and unspecified "other countries," a seeming reversal of current law. I say seeming because in fact this amendment is likely to be eliminated when the House and the Senate meet to coordinate the final form of the bill. Nevertheless, politicians and pundits seem to be in agreement: drug importation is an idea whose time is at hand, if not this year, then next.

One headline stated the truth of the situation: "Drug reimportation may cure some political ills." This is how far we have fallen on this subject in an election year. No one seems to be contemplating the consequences of allowing importation beyond the superficial quick-fix political benefit (no one except ACSH, that is).

Importing drugs from overseas, even if they are allegedly American-made, means importing foreign price controls. No country with price controls on pharmaceuticals has been able to compete with the U.S. drug industry by any measure for decades. And I say _allegedly_ American-made because the likelihood of counterfeit and sub-standard drugs getting into the U.S. by "re-importation" is extremely large, despite the casual brush-offs that this issue routinely inspires in the pro-importation camp.

Another statement, this one from a Congressman, brings the issue into sharp relief, and shows what those of us who attempt to deal rationally with this issue are up against: Discussing the House passage of allowing imports, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) asserted that "U.S. prices are kept artificially high by pharmaceutical companies." And I guess car prices are kept artificially high by Ford and GM for their own nefarious purposes such as making a profit and designing newer, safer cars. And don't forget those greedy farmers, keeping the prices of fruits and veggies high, artificially. If these prices weren't kept "artificially" high, perhaps all products would cost only pennies but who would invent/grow/manufacture them in their current quantities if the profit motive were diminished? Of course, expensive drugs may be lifesaving but don't help people who can't buy them. This needs to be addressed by drug makers and insurers alike. But if Rep. Emanuel's comment represents the level of economic sophistication among our learned lawmakers, we are all in trouble.

Gilbert Ross, M.D., is Medical and Executive Director of the American Council on Science and Health.