Published in The American Spectator on October 28, 2008
Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama both declared recently that they'd rethink their support for foreign drug importation, largely because of repeated scares about contaminated drug supplies.
That's an encouraging development. The U.S. currently bans bulk drug imports, but if that ban were lifted, millions of unsuspecting patients could find themselves with dangerous counterfeit drugs in their medicine cabinets.
There is plenty of evidence that counterfeit drugs are a serious problem in the global market. For example, Belgian officials recently seized more than two million fake painkillers and anti-malarial pills being shipped to Africa from India. It was the largest counterfeit drug raid in European history. Disturbingly, the counterfeits almost slipped through, as inspectors decided to test the drugs only after noticing spelling mistakes on the labels.
"Thanks to this seizure, we have saved lives," said Lieven Muylaert, spokesman for Belgium's customs department.
That's no exaggeration. According to Oxford's Centre for Tropical Medicine, the trace amounts of anti-malarial ingredients contained in fake drugs like those seized can cause the malaria parasite to develop immunity to genuine doses and make it more difficult for patients to recover.
The events in Belgium should give pause to American lawmakers pushing to legalize foreign drug importation. Clearly counterfeit drug makers have grown adept at circumventing regulators. If bulk imports were allowed, these drugs could easily have made their way to the U.S. market.
Currently, pharmaceutical companies are required to protect the supply chain for the drugs they produce, starting with the manufacturing plant, through the distribution channels, and on to pharmacists, physicians, and patients in the United States.
If European and Canadian suppliers could introduce other drugs into the U.S. supply chain, it would be impossible to tell if the medicine came from a FDA-inspected facility or from an unsanitary plant in Bangladesh.
These concerns are real. The World Health Organization estimates that 10 percent of today's global medicine supply is counterfeit. If importation were legal, drugs like those seized in Belgium could easily put U.S. consumers at risk.
Importation is made even more dangerous by the European Union's system of "parallel trade," wherein pharmaceuticals pass freely among EU nations. This allows multiple opportunities for counterfeits to infiltrate the supply chain. A drug sold in Britain could have been produced in China or India and shipped through Belgium, Latvia, or Cyprus.
It's refreshing to see the presidential candidates reconsider their stances on importation in light of the mounting evidence of its dangers. Let's hope they and other legislators continue to put Americans' safety first by standing against the dangers of foreign drug importation.
Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a non-profit research organization in Alexandria, Virginia focusing on free-market solutions to health reform (firstname.lastname@example.org).