Feds Target Individuals' Prescription Drug Imports

The Santa Fe New Mexican

06-06-06

U.S. confiscating packages intercepted from Canada

Imports: Estimated 2 million Americans buy drugs from Canada in 2004

After ordering a prescription drug for his enlarged prostate earlier this year from a Canadian pharmacy, a 76-year-old Santa Fe man received a letter from the federal government informing him that it had confiscated the package.

The man, who did not want to be identified, said he saves more than $200 every three months or so by buying two prescription drugs - - Celebrex and tamsulosin (the generic name for Flomax) -- from a Canadian pharmacy rather than at Albertsons or Walgreens.

The U.S. Customs & Border Protection agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, said it was illegal for him to import the medications under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. He was given the option of "voluntarily abandoning" the property to the government. If he did nothing, the letter said, the package would be "considered abandoned" after 30 days and destroyed.

He could also ask the agency to forward the medicine to the FDA for a ruling.

The man said he took no action and never considered ending his practice of filling his prescriptions in Canada.

He said he notified Canada Drugs, which replaced his order at no charge.

The man said he objected to his mail being intercepted and to the correspondence, which included a flyer warning him about the safety of importing prescription drugs. "I thought it was kind of threatening," he said.

Until recently, the FDA has focused its enforcement efforts on people who import large quantities of drugs and not on individuals trying to save money on prescription medicines.

Stan Cooper, director of AARP-New Mexico, said the government has tolerated the practice with a "wink and a nod," and "this is the first I've heard" of the government confiscating an individual's order.

Lynn Hollinger, a spokeswoman for the CBP in Washington, said the policy was changed to target individuals as well in November 2005. Between then and May 1, the agency had sent out 28,835 letters informing U.S. residents that CBP had seized noncontrolled pharmaceuticals addressed to them.

The importing of medications from Canada and other nations is a "huge problem," Hollinger said. While there is no threat of a fine or criminal penalty, it's against the law and unsafe for consumers because "they don't know the origin of the drugs or what is in them," she said.

According to a story by Consumer Reports last October, an estimated 2 million Americans spent $800 million the previous year on medicines purchased from Canadian pharmacies by fax, phone or Web site.

The story said many states (but not New Mexico) have set up programs to help residents and their own employees import Canadian drugs, which cost 25 to 50 percent less than on the U.S. market.

The information from the CBP received by the Santa Fe man claimed drugs purchased over the Internet might be fake, have the wrong ingredients or have no medicine in them at all.

According to Hollinger, the FDA found the majority of pharmaceuticals monitored in a study stated they were from Canadian pharmacies when they were actually from other countries, including Iraq and Iran, and falsely identified.

But Consumer Reports cites a study by the Illinois Office of Special Advocate for Prescription Drugs, which found that Canada's manufacturing and regulatory system is comparable to that in the United States and the distribution system is more likely to discourage drug counterfeiting. Moreover, a June 2004 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office disclosed that all the prescription drugs it ordered from Canadian Internet pharmacies contained the proper chemical compositions and were properly shipped.

There are undoubtedly illegitimate pharmacies set up to serve people in the U.S. looking for drug bargains, the magazine noted, so customers should order from pharmacies entitled to display the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, or CIPA, seal. Such pharmacies will alert them when they intend to supply medication from another country.

The Santa Fe man said he began researching drug prices by going to dogpile.com, an Internet search engine, where he got a list of 20- 30 Canadian pharmacies, their 800 numbers and Web sites. He said he found Celebrex, an arthritis medicine, at $152 for one hundred 100 mg capsules. Locally, the same prescription cost at least $260, he said. Flomax, a drug used to treat an enlarged prostate gland, cost $120 in Canada and $240 in Santa Fe drug stores for the same amount.

The man now orders the generic form of Flomax from Winnipeg- based Canada Drugs and said he still saves over local prices, although the Consumer Reports study found the U.S. had the best prices for the five most prescribed generic drugs.

He pays $1 to fax his prescription to Canada Drugs and $10 shipping on orders under $100. He generally receives the medicine in about a week.

Harold Melnick, a coordinator at the state's prescription-drug- assistance program in the Department of Aging and Long-Term Services, said Canadian pharmacies are facing threats to this lucrative business besides new enforcement tactics by the U.S. government.

Prices are going up at Canadian pharmacies, he said, because drug companies are shipping only the quantity of drugs needed to supply Canadian residents. The drug companies, which don't want to lose these profits, are now setting up affiliates in other countries -- such as the Bahamas -- staffing them with Canadian pharmacists and filling U.S. orders. "It's a cat-and-mouse game," Melnick said.

Another threat to Canadian profits is the U.S. government's new Medicare Part D prescription-drug program. Melnick, who used to take a drug that cost $1,200 a month in the U.S. -- and half that in Canada -- said he signed up and is buying prescription drugs in the U.S. now.

But he doesn't believe there is any risk if a patient orders from a legitimate Canadian company. For one thing, the drugs are shipped in their original packaging from the drug company. In the U.S., pharmacies buy in bulk, and the drugs are often repackaged and dispensed by pharmacists. There has never been a case of a customer being harmed by drugs supplied by a legitimate Canadian pharmacy, he said.

Although Congress considered legislation in 2004 to allow people to buy prescription drugs legally from Canada, Hollinger still maintains "it is a risky business. And it's against the law."

Contact Anne Constable at 995-3845 or aconstable@sfnewmexican.com.

BEFORE ORDERING DRUGS FROM CANADA . . .

* Go to www.CRBestBuyDrugs.org for information on drug options that can save you money.

* Ask your doctor to prescribe generic drugs and remember they are generally cheaper in the U.S. than in Canada.

* Check out www.pparx.com for information on 275 costsaving drug programs.

* Go to PharmacyChecker.com, for a list of approved outlets in Canada and look for the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, or CIPA, seal.

* To find a list of the Canadian pharmacies with CIPA seals, go to www.ciparx.ca/cipa-pharmacies.html.