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The San Francisco Chronicle

Medicine's northern exposure;

Government begins campaign against drugs from Canada

by Victoria Colliver, Chronicle Staff Writer
Feb 18, 2004

Federal authorities on Tuesday started an information campaign in California to try to discourage people from buying their prescription drugs from Canada.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with the California Pharmacists Association, announced plans to distribute pamphlets and other materials to pharmacies and consumers about the dangers of buying drugs from foreign countries. This comes at a time when San Francisco, other local lawmakers and state officials are proposing ways to help customers buy their drugs from Canada.

"When you buy drugs online, you're really putting yourself in a buyer-beware situation," said Peter Pitts, an associate commissioner with the FDA, referring to the potential of expired, mishandled or counterfeit medications. "We can't allow the Internet to become the 21st century drug cartel."

But people like Alfred De Vos aren't buying the FDA's argument. "If the FDA could get the drug companies to reduce their rates in the United States, that's fine. But they don't," said De Vos, 75, of South San Francisco.

De Vos, who is retired and lives on a limited income, estimates that he saves about 40 percent buying his medications through an online Canadian pharmacy that he has researched and trusts.

A groundswell of support for buying drugs from Canada has been building throughout the state and across the country.

Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Los Angeles, and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, have each introduced proposals that would authorize the state to buy drugs in bulk from Canada.

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors last month passed a resolution that supports finding a way to import cheaper Canadian prescription drugs to lower costs for San Francisco residents and city employees.

And last week, several members of the state Legislature introduced a package of bills designed to reduce government drug costs and help consumers buy medications from Canadian sources. Other jurisdictions, including Los Angeles, Boston, Springfield, Mass., Burlington, Vt., Illinois, New Hampshire and Minnesota, have also challenged the federal ban on Canadian prescription drugs.

While the FDA says buying drugs from Canada and other foreign countries is against the law, the agency has admitted it has neither the resources nor the inclination to go after individuals who buy drugs from other countries for personal use.

FDA officials say they can't guarantee the medications people buy online are safe. While they can't point to cases in which Americans have been harmed by drugs purchased from Canadian pharmacies, there have been numerous counterfeiting incidents traced to drugs purchased through the Internet. Earlier this month, the FDA announced the discovery of fake birth control patches sold online and shipped from India.

David MacKay, executive director of the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, called the FDA's campaign the "same rhetoric -- new state." California is the second state after Illinois that has used this tactic.

MacKay said consumers can take various steps to make sure they're dealing with a certified Canadian pharmacy, such as confirming the pharmacy's license with Canadian authorities.

Jerry Flanagan, with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said the California Pharmacists Association stands to lose business from online pharmacies. "Seniors need to know that the pharmacies have a financial interest in the outcome of this debate," he said.

The pharmacy trade group paid for the printing of 1 million information packets warning consumers about the dangers of buying drugs from foreign countries. The packets will be sent to 1,000 pharmacies statewide for distribution to their customers.

Carlo Michelotti, chief executive of the California Pharmacists Association, would not say how much the group is spending on the campaign, but he admits his group has a vested interest. "We have a public health responsibility," he said. "Safety is the issue."

According to the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, Americans spend about $800 million a year buying drugs from Canadian pharmacies.
E-mail Victoria Colliver at [email protected]