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Faced with the growing cost of prescription drugs and the ease of shopping online, more people are turning to the Internet in search of less expensive medications. While this may sound harmless, at any one time there are nearly 34,000 active illegal online pharmacies and 600 new illegal pharmacy websites are launched every month.
These websites sell prescription medicines, including opioids, without requiring a valid physician’s prescription. They exploit a global postal system incapable of sufficiently screening the materials within its shipments, and the products they peddle are often counterfeit or substandard — and can even be deadly. Some “medications” look genuine but contain too much, too little or no active pharmaceutical ingredients, and/or poisons such as paint thinner, antifreeze and floor wax. Others are not properly handled or stored before reaching customers, diminishing their efficacy or rendering them unsafe.
Several members of Congress recently introduced the Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act, legislation they claim would allow U.S. consumers, wholesalers, and licensed U.S. pharmacies to buy less expensive but, at the same time, safe and genuine Health Canada-approved prescription drugs from licensed Canadian sellers inspected and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Despite its claims, the truth is that this policy will exacerbate the proliferation of illegal online pharmacies and increase the influx of counterfeit and controlled medicines, endangering consumers rather than helping them and fueling the ongoing opioid epidemic in the U.S.
The Truth About Canadian Pharmacies
When U.S. consumers search for “Canadian online pharmacies,” they find thousands of websites that claim to sell Health Canada-approved drugs supplied by licensed pharmacies in Canada. However, most of these websites have no real connection to Canada at all; it’s easy to “copy and paste” a maple leaf or seal of approval on a website to dupe customers into believing they are purchasing real medications from a legitimate pharmacy, when what they are really getting is neither legal nor safe.
Worse yet, these “Canadian” online pharmacies often have a bifurcated supply chain that provides Canadian consumers with Health Canada-approved medications while shipping consumers in the U.S. drugs that were manufactured or sourced elsewhere. A recent study found that 85 percent of non-U.S. FDA-approved medicines that claimed to be from Canada were in fact from India, China and other countries — including countries where U.S. citizens wouldn’t drink the water, let alone buy medicines.
In an attempt to address this issue, the proposed importation legislation includes a provision for the creation of a list of licensed Canadian online pharmacies and facilities to be maintained by the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Such a list would be woefully insufficient in reining in illegal online pharmacies. The HHS would still have no oversight into online pharmacies’ supply chains, nor would it have jurisdiction to enforce violations of applicable U.S. law. Representatives from the U.S. FDA and the Government of Canada underscore this point, saying they cannot ensure the safety or legitimacy of products bought online.
The proposed measure also underestimates both the scope of the illegal online pharmacy trade and the challenges of building an enforcement apparatus that would stifle this booming market. Every day, nearly one million packages are shipped into the U.S. without electronic data that would allow law enforcement officials to target and screen potentially unsafe packages. This allows illegal online pharmacies to send drugs to the U.S. without being detected.
Closing the Postal Loophole
Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio has introduced the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act to help address the global postal service loophole. The STOP Act would require that all packages shipped by foreign countries to the U.S. include important electronic security data, which would give U.S. law enforcement some of the tools it needs to screen and prevent dangerous drugs from entering our country.
While it would be reckless and irresponsible for the U.S. federal government to open our borders to Canadian pharmacies by passing the Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act, the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP Global) supports the STOP Act and the work of elected officials to curb the trafficking of deadly and counterfeit drugs through the global postal service. Passage of this bill will not put an end to illegal online pharmacies or the opioid epidemic; however, it will signify progress in protecting the health and safety of all Americans.
Libby Baney is executive director of the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP Global).
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