It’s Time to Stop Pimping for the Drug Companies It's Time to Stop Pimping for the Drug Companies

Rachel Marsden

Some people have theorized that Babe Ruth was such a successful baseball player because opposing teams were distracted by the stripes on his Yankees uniform. When it came to George W. Bush’s recent state visit to Canada, a regular dark-colored suit seemed to do the same job just fine. The media was more interested in playing up the “Fear Factor” element of Bush’s state dinner, wondering if he had any concerns over being “Yushchenkoed” as a result of eating Alberta beef that was once at the centre of the Mad Cow controversy. The press conference consisted of softball after softball, as Bush leisurely rounded the bases, while arguably the biggest issue affecting the two countries -- aside from perhaps security-related concerns -- slid on by.

With the Democratic Party still in recovery from a woodshed spanking in the last election, and longing for the halcyon days of Bill Clinton, you know it’s hardly in a position to provide any real opposition to an administration that was re-elected by the largest number of votes in American history. At times of weak opposition like this, it often falls to the media and the people within the governing party to take on the role. Such must be the case with the issue of prescription drug re-importation from Canada to the USA.

Americans are being ripped off by their own drug companies, and there’s no excuse for it, despite the various fright theories that are being floated. Americans are playing the loyal, dutiful, supportive wife to these companies--turning a blind eye while her own money is being used to support and subsidize various mistresses around the world. Twenty-nine percent of Americans can’t fill their prescriptions, according to the Kaiser Foundation, and are paying between two and five times more for their drugs than Canadians. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration has deemed it illegal for an American to purchase identical drugs from Canada. Currently, only the drug companies themselves are allowed to re-import their own products from other countries. Recognizing the hypocrisy, Congress passed a bill last July, by an overwhelming 389-31 margin, making the FDA’s position non-enforceable, and allowing for importation by “wholesalers and pharmacists”. It’s a start.

Much has been made of this FDA ‘safety’ issue, with even President Bush himself saying during the Presidential debates that he wants to make sure drugs from Canada are ‘safe’ before allowing for Americans to import them. Newsflash: Brand-name drugs from Canada are from the exact same companies and manufactured in the same factories as those that are available in the USA. Canadian drugs are nothing more than US drugs with frequent flyer points.

Law professor and policy analyst, Michael Krauss, hyperventilates that “if these drugs (from Canada) turn out to have been adulterated, guess which companies will be sued for punitive damages? If the drugs turn out to have entered Canada from a terror-sponsoring nation, who knows who put what poison into them? (The re-importation bill)...creates horrific opportunities for those who would terrorize our nation's citizens.”

Guess what, Professor Krauss? These re-imported drugs are “entering Canada” from the USA. Beyond that, I doubt they’re going on some kind of world tour before heading back stateside--unless they’re one of the lucky bottles on tour with rockers Ozzy Osbourne or Courtney Love as part of their own personal pharmacies. So unless you consider your own country to be a “terrorist sponsoring nation”, I guess that argument is out the window. And if drug companies are worried about their own packaging being tampered with while their drugs travel from the USA to Canada and back to the USA again, then maybe they ought to make some better, tamper-resistant packaging in the first place.

I’m not sure if Professor Krauss has been to Manitoba, where the Canadian Internet pharmacies are located, but I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here and guess that he hasn’t. I doubt that there’s a single, swarthy al-Qaeda terrorist out there who could stomach a single day of frozen-finger fumbling with pharmaceutical packaging in the middle of a Manitoba winter. Not even in exchange for those seventy-two virgins.

Canada comprises less than three percent of the world pharmaceutical market, while the US represents the largest, most lucrative market in the world at more than ten times the size. Drug companies often complain that having their prices driven down by cross-border purchasing would cut their profit margins to the point where they would no longer be able to fund research and development of new drugs. It’s a bogus argument.

According to the IMS Health -- the leading source of prescription drug information in the world -- drug sale growth worldwide stood at 8 percent last year. And that’s even in spite of the drug-related lawsuits that could very well be eliminated through Bush’s proposed tort reform.

A report by Families USA found that profit margins in the pharmaceutical industry were nearly four times the average of Fortune 500 companies, and that the industry remains the most profitable in America. There’s no way that anything could cause these drug manufacturers stop developing new drugs that could end up make them even more money. Each developmental project is a potentially huge revenue stream. They’ll cut back on their considerable marketing budgets before they ever cut into R&D. And I’m sure we could all do with a few less of those “ask your doctor” ads featuring the elated guy with the mystery ailment.

Despite the fact that the US government appears to be moving toward allowing its citizens to legally import drugs from Canadian pharmacies, it could turn out to be a short-lived luxury. Drug companies represent one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the world, and at the moment, all their resources and efforts are directed at shutting down Canadian Internet pharmacies.

Predictably, Canadian Health Minister, Ujjal Dosanjh, appears to be caving to the pressure. The Minister -- along with the Manitoba Pharmaceutical Association, which governs most of the Canadian Internet pharmacies -- has vowed to suspend the license of any physician who is caught co-signing a prescription for a patient he or she hasn’t seen. And if prescriptions from the United States don’t have a Canadian co-signing physician, then they cannot be filled. How convenient.

The Canadian Health Minister needs to rethink his position, grab a handful of cojones, and tell the drug companies to shove it. If they’re threatening to cut off supply, then throw the Patent Act back in their face. Under Canadian patent law, if a brand-name drug company sets its price too high, or cuts off supply to Canadians, then the government can issue a compulsory license to a generic drug manufacturing firm.

There is one lesson in particular that Americans can learn from Canadians when it comes to dealing effectively with the drug lobby. Many Americans mistakenly believe that it’s because of some kind of commie way of thinking that Canadians have been able to get away with having low drug prices. Unless you think that Costco and Wal-Mart are spawn of Stalin, then this isn’t at all the case. Bulk purchasing equals bargaining power. It’s why you can get $7.99 CDs at your local big-box music store; and enough ketchup paste at Costco to fully re-enact all the blood-gushing scenes from the Battle of Gettysburg for the same price that you would normally pay for a single can of the stuff at your neighborhood ma and pa.

The Province of Ontario alone has a $2.6 billion dollar drug plan. It’s one of the largest in North America, and it gives the province leverage with suppliers. Nation-wide, forty-five percent of the prescription drug market in Canada is run by provincial governments that have cut similar wholesale deals. It’s not communism; it’s savvy consumerism.

The biggest mistake President Bush made with his Medicare reform bill was to actually include a clause prohibiting the federal government from negotiating with the drug companies for lower prices. Just try to imagine K-Mart doing the same. It would be the end of the Blue Light Special. In a time of free trade and globalization, both George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin need to walk the free market talk, knock it off with the protectionism, and stop pimping for the drug companies.