Seniors Launch Misguided Drug War

The latest battle in the international drug wars involves senior citizens boycotting Tums and Geritol to punish a British-based company that refuses to go along with an effort by Canadian pharmacists to break U.S. law.

This bizarre scenario has come about because the maker of Tums and Geritol — GlaxoSmithKline — announced last month that it would stop selling its prescription drug products to Canadian pharmacies that export the medicines outside Canada.

Angry seniors braved a knee-deep snowstorm recently to protest outside Glaxo’s U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia. They also purchased ads in major papers like The New York Times to promote a multi-state boycott against the company’s over-the-counter products.

But seniors’ ire is misguided. Glaxo’s decision is based on legal and safety concerns.

Under U.S. law, it is illegal to import prescription drugs from other countries, including through Internet sites, without explicit Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. The law was passed in 1988 to protect U.S. citizens from fake and contaminated imported medicines.

Glaxo says that it made its decision because it can’t guarantee the safety of its products sold by Canadian mail-order pharmacies to the U.S. In addition to products like Tums, the company produces popular pharmaceuticals such as the anti-depression drug Paxil and Advair for asthma.

Seniors contend that the company is only worried about its bottom line. Largely because Canada imposes price controls on drugs, some drugs are cheaper in Canada.

“Regardless of what Glaxo says, we all know the real reason. We are affecting their bloated profit margins,” says Barbara Kaufman, president of the Minnesota Senior Federation that is leading the boycott. Seniors who need Glaxo’s prescription drugs are not being asked to stop taking them as part of the boycott, however.

The Vermont legislature has joined the fray, passing a resolution condemning Glaxo for its decision.

In Rhode Island, legislators are offering a bill to make it legal for Canadian pharmacies to export prescription drugs to the state. In a Neverland statement, Steven DeToy, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Medical Society, said that he believes state regulations could be written to supersede federal law.

The U.S. Congress attempted in 2000 to change federal law to make reimportation legal, but met a firestorm of opposition from former FDA commissioners and Health and Human Services Secretaries.

They said that imported drugs raise serious safety concerns since they could be counterfeit, contaminated, expired, or mislabeled. Black market rings inevitably spring up with swindlers and imposters entering the market.

If these laws allowing drug reimportation were to pass, seniors should worry that they would be taking little blue or purple or green pills with no one assuring them they are safe or even that they are getting the drugs they ordered. It could become the Wild, Wild West again for modern pharmaceuticals.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not have jurisdiction in Canada and doesn’t begin to have the personpower to monitor every package of pills coming into the U.S.

And seniors also should be concerned that Canadian law doesn’t protect them either. Article 37 of the Canadian Food and Drug Act says that drugs imported into Canada but not intended for sale in Canada do not have to meet the same safety inspection standards.

The Canadian pharmacy board, which recognizes its pharmacists are breaking U.S. law, has begun to help, punishing Internet pharmacies that fail to have a Canadian pharmacist “rubber stamp” a prescription by a U.S. doctor before it is filled.

If a U.S. citizen were to be injured by reimported drugs, pharmaceutical companies have no doubt that trial lawyers would quickly file a class action suit against them, saying that they knew their drugs were being sold back to the U.S. illegally and that they are therefore responsible. Deaths already have occurred with reimported drugs from Mexico, and it is only a matter of time for Canada.

Nonetheless, Canadian pharmacies are finding that exploiting price controls and breaking U.S. law can be lucrative. At least 80 Internet enterprises are operating in the country, employing about 2,500 people and grossing $500 million a year.

Drug reimportation is not the answer. What seniors need is a modernized Medicare plan that includes prescription drug coverage so they don’t have to resort to boycotts and illegal activity.

Congress has the issue on the front burner this year, with the leadership hoping to pass a bill providing a Medicare drug benefit by the summer. The solution lies not in breaking the law but in providing financial help to seniors who need it.

Grace-Marie Turner



Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a public policy research organization that focuses on free-market ideas for health reform. She can be reached at P.O. Box 19080, Alexandria, VA 22320, or at galen@galen.org

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The latest battle in the international drug wars involves senior citizens boycotting Tums and Geritol to punish a British-based company that refuses to go along with an effort by Canadian pharmacists to break U.S. law.

This bizarre scenario has come about because the maker of Tums and Geritol — GlaxoSmithKline — announced last month that it would stop selling its prescription drug products to Canadian pharmacies that export the medicines outside Canada.

Angry seniors braved a knee-deep snowstorm recently to protest outside Glaxo’s U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia. They also purchased ads in major papers like The New York Times to promote a multi-state boycott against the company’s over-the-counter products.

But seniors’ ire is misguided. Glaxo’s decision is based on legal and safety concerns.

Under U.S. law, it is illegal to import prescription drugs from other countries, including through Internet sites, without explicit Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. The law was passed in 1988 to protect U.S. citizens from fake and contaminated imported medicines.

Glaxo says that it made its decision because it can’t guarantee the safety of its products sold by Canadian mail-order pharmacies to the U.S. In addition to products like Tums, the company produces popular pharmaceuticals such as the anti-depression drug Paxil and Advair for asthma.

Seniors contend that the company is only worried about its bottom line. Largely because Canada imposes price controls on drugs, some drugs are cheaper in Canada.

“Regardless of what Glaxo says, we all know the real reason. We are affecting their bloated profit margins,” says Barbara Kaufman, president of the Minnesota Senior Federation that is leading the boycott. Seniors who need Glaxo’s prescription drugs are not being asked to stop taking them as part of the boycott, however.

The Vermont legislature has joined the fray, passing a resolution condemning Glaxo for its decision.

In Rhode Island, legislators are offering a bill to make it legal for Canadian pharmacies to export prescription drugs to the state. In a Neverland statement, Steven DeToy, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Medical Society, said that he believes state regulations could be written to supersede federal law.

The U.S. Congress attempted in 2000 to change federal law to make reimportation legal, but met a firestorm of opposition from former FDA commissioners and Health and Human Services Secretaries.

They said that imported drugs raise serious safety concerns since they could be counterfeit, contaminated, expired, or mislabeled. Black market rings inevitably spring up with swindlers and imposters entering the market.

If these laws allowing drug reimportation were to pass, seniors should worry that they would be taking little blue or purple or green pills with no one assuring them they are safe or even that they are getting the drugs they ordered. It could become the Wild, Wild West again for modern pharmaceuticals.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not have jurisdiction in Canada and doesn’t begin to have the personpower to monitor every package of pills coming into the U.S.

And seniors also should be concerned that Canadian law doesn’t protect them either. Article 37 of the Canadian Food and Drug Act says that drugs imported into Canada but not intended for sale in Canada do not have to meet the same safety inspection standards.

The Canadian pharmacy board, which recognizes its pharmacists are breaking U.S. law, has begun to help, punishing Internet pharmacies that fail to have a Canadian pharmacist “rubber stamp” a prescription by a U.S. doctor before it is filled.

If a U.S. citizen were to be injured by reimported drugs, pharmaceutical companies have no doubt that trial lawyers would quickly file a class action suit against them, saying that they knew their drugs were being sold back to the U.S. illegally and that they are therefore responsible. Deaths already have occurred with reimported drugs from Mexico, and it is only a matter of time for Canada.

Nonetheless, Canadian pharmacies are finding that exploiting price controls and breaking U.S. law can be lucrative. At least 80 Internet enterprises are operating in the country, employing about 2,500 people and grossing $500 million a year.

Drug reimportation is not the answer. What seniors need is a modernized Medicare plan that includes prescription drug coverage so they don’t have to resort to boycotts and illegal activity.

Congress has the issue on the front burner this year, with the leadership hoping to pass a bill providing a Medicare drug benefit by the summer. The solution lies not in breaking the law but in providing financial help to seniors who need it.

Grace-Marie Turner



Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a public policy research organization that focuses on free-market ideas for health reform. She can be reached at P.O. Box 19080, Alexandria, VA 22320, or at galen@galen.org

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About the author