Congress shouldn’t let a dangerous world into our medicine cabinets
In the midst of a nationwide epidemic of opioid addiction fueled by illicit smuggling of drugs from overseas, and coming on the heels of a year in which U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized over $73 million worth of counterfeit medicines at our nation’s ports, some members of Congress have suggested a novel approach to these growing threats: “opening the floodgates.”
Rather than provide law enforcement and customs officials with the necessary funding and resources to address these existing problems, they’ve instead proposed opening up our nation’s borders to imports of foreign-sourced pharmaceuticals. Doing so, however, would put American consumers at considerable risk.
It’s well known that consumers have turned to the internet in recent years, seeking lower prices and better deals on the goods that they buy — including their prescription drugs. What most consumers don’t realize though is that the overwhelming majority of “online pharmacies” are simply modern-day snake-oil salesmen, trafficking in products that may look like the real thing, but in reality are far from it.
For many consumers shopping on these sites, the drugs that they receive may actually put their health at greater risk, since there is no way of knowing how the products have been produced or what ingredients were used. These imported drugs would circumvent the many laws, regulations and FDA oversight governing what goes into our drugs and how they are made.
Many also fail to realize that the trafficking in counterfeit medicines has become a big business for organized criminal networks, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars each year around the world. While the World Health Organization has stated that one of every 10 drugs sold worldwide is counterfeit, the U.S. pharmaceutical market has remained largely insulated from those concerns.
What proponents of drug importation don’t seem to understand, however, is that our market is the safest in the world precisely because we’ve placed importance on ensuring appropriate oversight, regulation and enforcement of the pharmaceutical distribution system. Rolling back those protections would greatly increase the risks to our consumers.
In his recently published landmark report on the Potential Impact of Drug Importation Proposals on U.S. Law Enforcement, former FBI Director Louis Freeh uncovered several effects that drug importation may have on the counterfeit pharmaceutical market, as well as how law enforcement and customs officials enforce anti-counterfeiting laws in the United States. The Freeh report, relying upon extensive interviews with leading law enforcement professionals, found that congressionally-approved drug importation would increase the incentives for criminal organizations to ship counterfeit pharmaceuticals through seemingly legitimate “Canadian” sellers. It also gave some chilling examples of counterfeit pharmaceutical incidents which have already occurred in the United States, and provided an outlook as to how those incidents could increase dramatically with the adoption of current importation proposals.
For example, the Freeh report cited a 2016 operation involving the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Homeland Security, and INTERPOL which seized $53 million worth of illicit drugs. Later that year, $10 million in counterfeit drugs and liquid assets were swept up in a series of Florida arrests. On a more tragic note, earlier this year 10 people in the Sacramento area died and 30 more were hospitalized because they took counterfeit painkilling medicines. Some seizure reports even showed the importation of the opioid fentanyl disguised as prescription drugs. But recent proposals in Congress could allow the importation of drugs from other jurisdictions with less regulation, less oversight, and less enforcement than currently exists. This could open the U.S. market to the counterfeiting organizations that have been hungering to exploit it and pose significant risks to patient safety.
The drug importation proposals currently under consideration would undoubtedly overwhelm customs and law enforcement officers’ resources as they seek to differentiate legitimate imports from dangerous fakes. The end result — which many in Congress fail to recognize — is that loosening current restrictions on pharmaceutical imports would put U.S. consumers at significantly greater risk.
Congress has a responsibility to protect the public it serves. Once we take down our carefully crafted, secure protections and open the floodgates to counterfeiters, there will be tragic consequences that our law enforcement and regulatory agencies do not have the resources to prevent.
We’ve already seen a glimpse of the impact that counterfeit drugs can have on our lives and our communities. If Congress opens our doors to importation, we will be faced with a global threat which we simply aren’t prepared to adequately address.
There is no greater priority than Americans’ health and safety. That should be foremost in lawmakers’ minds when considering the security of our drug supply.