Unsafe at Any Price

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This piece first appeared on TCSDaily.com.

Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) is on a quixotic quest to allow foreign drugs into our pharmacies and clinics. However, anyone familiar with the issue is well aware that so-called "Canadian" drugs allowed under the "Vitter Amendment" can come from almost anywhere on the globe -- an easy path for substandard and toxic drugs to enter our supply. Despite this, Vitter demanded and got his drug importation amendment tacked onto the funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security, which has been passed by the Senate and goes now to be massaged in Senate-House conference.

How ironic that this is being done under the umbrella of homeland security: short of terrorism and contagion, there are few things that would more undermine the safety of the homeland than allowing drugs of uncertain provenance to mingle with home-grown, safe, and effective FDA-approved pharmaceuticals.

Vitter has tried this trick before, but wiser heads have thus far prevailed by excising his ill-advised amendments from other bills. His colleagues in the Republican Party generally oppose eliminating the longstanding barrier against foreign drug imports, but they have been unable to throttle his populist posturing (drugs from other countries seem to promise lower prices, due more to foreign price controls than market competition, even if many of those drugs are in fact adulterated or otherwise worthless). The Democratic majority, knowing full well that his amendment has almost zero chance of being preserved in the final bill and does not deserve to be, is nonetheless happy to let him take temporary "credit" for the amendment, since criticizing it on the merits might antagonize their anti-pharma base.

Vitter ignores three key facts in his ongoing crusade:
¢ First, the FDA has long held the authority to permit foreign drug imports. All that is required is that the FDA Commissioner be able to certify that such drugs are safe. No FDA boss has believed that, though, and with good reason.

¢ The presence of "cheap" foreign drugs would have little impact on the cost of pharmaceuticals for the overwhelming majority of our population. Sacrificing our safety and health would be a large price to pay for a very small return.

¢ Most importantly, importing cheaper foreign drugs _en masse_ would by definition mean importing foreign price controls. And where government-imposed price controls are in place on drugs--including Europe, Japan, and Canada--innovative drug research and development withers as the profit motive is removed from the drug business. How many innovative new drugs have been developed over the past fifteen years by European pharmaceutical companies, as compared to American blockbusters?

Fifteen years is the period during which price controls have been imposed over there, leading to a flight of intellectual resources westward across the Atlantic. Imposing such controls here--which is what importation, in effect, does--will lead to stagnation in our own drug R&D process, and our children and grandchildren will have to accept 2009 formularies into the foreseeable future.

Let's hope that Vitter's anti-business, anti-consumer amendment is once again stricken from the legislation. That way we will be protected from an onslaught of less-expensive but potentially more-toxic foreign drugs, and more importantly, we will avoid a future in which fewer lifesaving drugs are discovered and made available to us and our progeny.