Two years ago, when Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (R) was pushing for a drug plan that involved importing drugs from Canada, his critics brought up the issue of tainted drugs. Pawlenty’s memorable answer: “My first response to that is show me the dead Canadians. Where are the dead Canadians?”
A few months ago, the (sleazy) “American Spectator” published an article that picked up the question:
There are now dead Canadians. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police this month charged Abadir Nasr, former owner of King West Pharmacy in Hamilton, Ontario, with selling counterfeit Norvasc. Five people who filled their heart medication prescriptions at the pharmacy died of heart attack or stroke. At press time yesterday evening, Gov. Pawlenty’s office did not have a comment.
That’s from “Unsafe at Any Dose”, a “Spectator” article reprinted on BuySafeDrugs.info (tagline: “Think your drugs are from Canada? Think again.”) The site comes courtesy of PhRMA, the same pharma lobbying group of thriller novel fame.
The “Spectator” article makes a few good points, but a healthy dose of context is lacking. For example, author David Holman notes that “Drug reimportation is a sovereignty question. Americans would surrender quality control and market forces to the countries from which we import.” Very true. But to take this argument to its logical conclusion, we must of course argue that Canada’s healthcare system is significantly inferior to our own, with demonstrably weaker drug safety regulation and enforcement.
That may very well be true, but again Holman’s evidence is weak. He notes that “experts convened on Capitol Hill Tuesday by the Pacific Research Institute and the Center for Medicines in the Public Interest detailed how foreign drug markets are compromised by counterfeit medicines.” He neglects to mention that PRI and CMPI are in fact the same organization, with donors which include Philip Morris, Pfizer, and… PhRMA. (Not to mention the Sarah Scaife Foundation, controlled by Richard Mellon Scaife, who backs the “Spectator.” Nice and neat, eh?)
I trust that in their Capitol Hill testimony, the Pfizer/PhRMA/PRI experts also mentioned that counterfeiting is a serious and growing problem in the United States as well. In 2001, CBS reported “at least 66 deaths and hundreds of severe reactions” to a counterfeit antibiotic (see “Faking It: Counterfeit Drugs on the Rise“) In an extensive 2003 story, Chemical & Engineering News examines the shady practices used by some of the 7,000 secondary drug wholesalers in America.
So our house is far from in order, a fact to which Holman devotes a scant 8 word clause: “Though counterfeit drugs aren’t absent in the U.S., our market cannot very well bear opening the floodgates.” Perhaps he’s operating on orders from the global Pharmaceutical Security Institute, whose rep said this last December:
“It is necessary to keep fake drug information confidential for commercial reasons…to avoid media leaks and to prevent the possibility of rival drug companies taking unfair commercial advantage of a victim company.” He explained, “At the outset, we [the PSI] were against having data online that anyone could interrogate…If a patient came to harm as a result of a counterfeit product, the company’s good reputation is in danger of disappearing, together with a loss of confidence in the products… The one thing we were trying very hard to do was to keep it [data] out of the hands of the commercial people in any of the companies…The importance of meeting sales’ targets is such that you can even find cut-throat competition between different operating divisions of the same company, let alone between two companies competing in the same market with similar drugs.”
Lovely. So, to recap: Holman would prefer we tar Canada, Niger and every other country with the same “counterfeit” and “lax” brushes, while essentially ignoring the same problem in the States. Coincidentally, both positions are precisely how the drug industry likes it.
Oh, hold on. I missed one. Holman also quotes an author who argues that drugs are cheaper in Canada because Americans pay for the R&D in the first place:
The industry can price its products according to basic economics in the American marketplace, financing overall production. “Drug companies can tolerate price controls in developed countries like Canada as long as the prices cover marginal costs, and the country represents a small share of the market,” Pipes writes.
That book, by the way, is Miracle Cure: How to Solve America’s Health-Care Crisis and Why Canada Isn’t the Answer by Sally C. Pipes.
Its publisher? None other than the very same PhRMA-backed Pacific Research Institute. Another fact Holman neglects to mention. Surprise, surprise.
Update [4:15a]: This 2003 Canadian Medical Association Journal article, which predates the Norvasc fatalities, strikes back at the PhRMA line with two themes: 1) “to my knowledge there has not been a single counterfeit issue within Canada” — if true, this year’s 5 dead Canadians really might have been the first and only — and 2) “there’s a larger potential for a US citizen to be exposed to counterfeit drugs by purchasing them within the United States than by getting them from Canada.” Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if both of these were actually true, but since this guy works for the “Canadian International Pharmacy Association,” his interest is as vested as our friends at PRI.