Drug importation: An old idea that is still a bad idea

Nicole Longo
Nicole Longo January 28, 2020

Drug importation: An old idea that is still a bad idea.

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2020 may have kicked off a new decade, but policymakers are stuck in the past, focusing on old, dangerous ideas like drug importation. For all the same reasons we’ve discussed before, drug importation schemes remain the wrong approach for Americans. The Administration’s “Safe Importation Action Plan,” for example, doesn’t address the concerns that have long been raised by stakeholders opposed to drug importation.

1) Importation exposes Americans to counterfeit, adulterated or substandard drugs.

At present, 1 in 10 medicines worldwide and up to 50% of drugs consumed in developing nations are counterfeit. Additionally, large-scale illegal manufacturing of fake products is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Counterfeits may look like real medicines – but they can contain dangerous ingredients like mercury and lead. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has long been the gold standard when it comes to regulating the safety of our medicine supply. But by allowing importation, we would open the U.S. borders and our closed supply chain to these dangerous and potentially deadly substances.

2) Policymakers have been unable to ensure an importation scheme would be both safe and generate savings for patients – as required by law.

Even today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) cannot demonstrate that importation wouldn’t create additional public health risks. Additionally, foreign governments will not – and cannot – ensure the drugs entering the United States from abroad are safe and effective. In fact, the Canadian government has stated they will not be able to guarantee the safety of medicines shipped through Canada to the United States.

At the same time, HHS has failed to establish that a drug importation proposal would generate savings for patients. The resources required to ensure the safety and efficacy of drugs being imported from or passing through other countries into the United States would outweigh any potential savings. Notably, the Administration’s proposed rule on drug importation does not answer the question of whether there would be any savings for patients under the plan.

3) Drug importation increases the burden on our law enforcement agencies.

U.S. law enforcement agencies like the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as local law enforcement officers, are already overburdened. It takes a substantial amount of time and resources to stop drug trafficking, and drug importation would only add to the task. As Rosie Rivera, sheriff of Salt Lake County, recently wrote, “Already our supply chain has been contaminated by foreign illicit drugs masquerading as conventional pharmaceuticals. Law enforcement’s fear is that importation will end up increasing the availability of contaminated and counterfeit drugs.”

4) History shows state-run importation schemes don’t work.

Over the years, several states have attempted to implement drug importation schemes, and all have failed because costs to states have far outweighed any potential savings. At the same time, consumers were hesitant to participate in these programs because of concerns about the safety of the drugs and the potential for delays in receiving their medicines. There is no evidence that any of the proposals floated by policymakers today would have any better success. In fact, there is significant doubt that these proposals would work at all.

Ensuring patient access to needed medicines is critical but the importation of drugs, whether from Canada or elsewhere in the world, is not the solution. Learn more about the dangers of drug importation here.

Topics: Prescription Drug Safety, Importation, Drug Importation