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Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois has taken action in an effort to offset U.S. prescription drug prices that are much higher than the same drugs sold in Canada and Europe. Unfortunately, he has had to violate existing federal laws to accomplish his goal. He knows what he has done is counter to U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations, and he hopes his flagrant disregard for those rules will force the U.S. government to either start enforcing its own laws or change them.
Blagojevich last week announced the formation of a state-sponsored Web site to connect Illinois residents with a Canadian company that can supply prescription drugs from Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom. A study last year estimated savings of $91 million just for state employees and retirees if they could purchase drugs at foreign prices.
While the federal government has been reluctant to ease its formal opposition to the importation of foreign drugs, the fact is that nothing has been done to put a stop to the million Americans who cross the Canadian border each year to purchase drugs. And other states, including Wisconsin and Minnesota, already have Web sites that residents can use to purchase drugs from Canadian pharmacies.
FDA officials and some elected federal officials say their concern about foreign drugs is safety. Blagojevich "should be personally liable if these drugs come into the United States and kill somebody or make somebody sick," said U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert from Illinois, who called for a crackdown on foreign drugs.
This is a genuine concern. Knock-off drugs are being produced around the globe -- primarily in China. Even though these counterfeit drugs look like the real thing, they often contain no active ingredients or, in too many cases, dangerous chemicals.
Knock-offs are not to be confused with generic drugs, which can be legitimately produced by pharmaceutical companies after a drug's patent has expired. Because generics are produced by more than one company, competition drives down the consumer's cost.
Blagojevich believes the same principle applies to his plan for allowing Illinois residents to purchase drugs through foreign outlets. The Illinois plan includes efforts to safeguard both the source of the drugs and the legitimacy of prescription requests.
It would be good, if the federal government is going to maintain its no-drug-imports stance, to see some resolution of U.S. law and states opting to allow Canadian imports. Otherwise, the FDA needs to find a way to provide basic safety standards for imported drugs.