Pharma’s importation safety concerns ring hollow

Americans pay much more for prescription drugs than people in other countries, and it’s not because we consume more drugs – it’s because our prices are so high. One way we can reduce drug prices is by importing drugs from Canada (a tactic that 19 million patients already employ illegally because they cannot afford their prescriptions). Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Bob Casey (D-PA) have written a bill that would allow individuals and pharmacies to buy Canadian drugs, saving patients (and the government) billions.

To no one’s surprise, big pharma is lobbying hard against the bill. Their main concern, as writers directly or indirectly representing pharma claim, is safety. In a STAT op-ed, Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, wrote that drug importation could lead to counterfeit or contaminated drugs coming into the US. Kenneth Thorpe, a health policy professor and chairman of a PhRMA-funded coalition, gave a more alarming prediction in his op-ed in US News, writing that “an importation free-for-all would almost certainly lead to a rise in illness and death due to substandard prescription medicines.”

Experts have addressed these safety concerns, pointing out that the US already imports 80% of all active pharmaceutical ingredients, that there is no evidence that Canadian drugs are inherently less safe than American ones, and that the FDA already has a system in place for safely important drugs during shortages.

We deserve to know that our medications are safe, and any legislation should ensure that patients are not exposed to additional risks from counterfeit or contaminated drugs. However, pharma’s obsession with safety on this issue is strange, because historically drug and device companies have pushed for quick approval and access over safety concerns, even fighting against safety warnings on products. Here are just a few examples:


The idea that pharma wants to protect us from unsafe imports, when they regularly ignore or obscure other threats to patient safety, is simply laughable. Drug importation is not a panacea; we will need more comprehensive solutions to reduce drug prices long term. But this bill is a step in the right direction and we should not let it be stopped by safety scares from those who stand to profit from the status quo.