Drug safety


It is to laugh— or cry

Yesterday the administration issued reports from the departments of Health and Human Services and Commerce claiming that importing cheaper drugs from developed countries — like Canada — would be risky and expensive business. It would cost too much, they contend, to ensure the safety of the drugs: Surgeon General Richard Carmona put the cost at $3 billion a year to regulate personal imports and hundreds of millions to regulate commercial imports.

The US has a huge problem with health costs, which have risen far in excess of the rate of inflation. But re-importing US drugs that have been first exported to other countries is never going to be a solution: it's not practical for the vast majority of individual Americans and it doesn't get at the root cause of the problem.


But to throw up safety as the justification for a policy of preventing re-importation is absurd. First, it is an insult to countries like Canada and Great Britain to suggest that they allow unsafe drugs into their marketplaces. Second, it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, for while President Bush natters on about the safety of imported drugs, we have been treated to the ongoing spectacle of three supposedly safe, FDA approved blockbuster drugs called into question for doubling the risk of heart attack and stroke in some cases. One, Vioxx, has already been withdrawn from the market. The other two, Celebrex and Aleve, are still on the market, but it can only be a matter of time before they are withdrawn, willingly or not.

The real problem with drug costs is that the US has a dysfunctional health care system in which the pharmaceutical companies are motivated by profits to convince everyone that they need pills — Ask your doctor if [profitable patented drug] is right for you! — and to charge as much as they can for them to maximize profits.

There's a reason that prescription drugs in other countries costs a fraction of the cost in the US: those countries regulate the cost of drugs as part of universal health care plans.

Wall Street loves pharmaceutical companies. All that is required to drive up the price of a company's shares is to announce that some new drug has begun clinical trials. Or conversely, news that a drug will not be granted FDA approval is sufficient to cause a drug company's shares to plummet.

Free markets are wonderful. But some things are too important to be left entirely to the invisible hand of the marketplace. Health care is one of them.