Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Acquiring drugs from other countries has worked in the European Union, a sign it could work here with Canada and the EU, according to an AARP report released yesterday.

The Seniors Coalition opposed the idea and said doing so will endanger Americans’ lives.

Both groups agree drug costs must be reduced; states and individuals already have started buying drugs from Canada. Seniors on fixed incomes are one of the groups least likely to be able to afford rising prescription drug costs.

“No one wants to break the law, but the power of the economy is hard to resist,” said AARP Chief Executive Officer Bill Novelli. Current law forbids drugs not approved by the Food and Drug Administration from entering the country.

“We need to legalize [drug importation] and give the FDA the resources to control it and ensure safety,” Mr. Novelli said.

AARP’s Public Policy Institute study examined the legal trade of prescription drugs between warehouses in European Union countries. There, only exact copies of the drugs can be imported between EU-licensed distributors.

In Sweden, which has been importing drugs since its entry into the EU in 1995, the prices of drugs that cannot be imported rose 7.6 percent between 1994 and 1998. The prices of imported drugs rose 2.8 percent, said Mattias Ganslandt, a researcher at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Sweden.

There were no reported incidents of counterfeit drugs or other safety threats, said Panos Kanavos, a lecturer at the London School of Economics and one of the study’s authors.

U.S. Sens. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, and Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, have co-sponsored a bill that would allow American consumers to buy drugs from Canada or from the 25-nation European Union.

Consumers have an opportunity to save a lot of money. Nexium, an anti-heartburn drug, costs $4.20 per pill in the United States and $2.46 per pill in Canada.

But drug companies post fewer profits, prompting them to have to cut back on research, which could have a detrimental long-term effect, the AARP study’s authors said.

Mr. Kanavos expressed concern that international supply is unstable and may not be able to keep up with U.S. demand or that foreign countries could restrict the amount of drugs that enter the United States. Canada already has begun cracking down on the practice.

The Seniors Coalition agreed.

Peter Pitts, formerly the associate commissioner for external relations at the FDA, said Canadian drugs are not a viable option for Americans.

Some Canadian medical groups, including the Best Medicines Coalition, are campaigning to make it illegal to fill a U.S. prescription there. If the Senate bill were to pass, Canada’s drug supply would not be able to meet U.S. and Canadian demands, said Mr. Pitts, who spoke on behalf of the seniors group yesterday.

While Health Canada has standards similar to those of the FDA, the EU has different standards, and drugs imported from member countries may not be safe, Mr. Pitts said. The risk of approving imports is that drugs will come from countries with less-rigorous health standards, such as Latvia, Estonia or Bulgaria.

A problem, both groups said, is that EU countries can trade between themselves, so a product that comes to the United States from a British address could have originated in a country with few health regulations.

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