Canada Doesn't Deserve These Vial Accusations

Peter McKnight is a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Vancouver Sun.

Blame Canada? I always thought that was just a satirical song from a postmodern TV cartoon.

Sure, I always figured we probably foisted a few too many comedians and journalists on to the U.S., but of late, the days of being pilloried because of Jim Carrey and Peter Jennings appear positively halcyon.

Seems Canada's now being blamed for exporting everything from terrorism to gay marriage, from lax laws on illegal drugs to "B.C. bud" -- the best marijuana the American dollar isn't supposed to buy.

So it's not surprising U.S. drug czar John Walters described the Great White North as "the one place in the hemisphere where things are going the wrong [way] rapidly." And it's also not surprising that the vitriol aimed at Canada isn't limited to illegal drugs. Prescription drugs, too, are going the wrong way -- from Canada to the U.S. -- as American consumers now spend about $1 billion a year at Canadian pharmacies.

That's not Canada's fault, of course. It's simply because drug prices in the U.S. are so exorbitant -- the highest in the world -- that those who need them most, such as seniors on fixed incomes, have to truck up to the land of igloos several times a year to get their fixes.

This is a problem of American apathy, not Canadian kindness, toward the underprivileged. But you'd never gather that from the rhetoric of some American politicians, who say the problem stems from the fact that Canada isn't paying "its fair share."

Let's consider that criticism. Sure, Canadians pay anywhere from 30% to 80% less than Americans for the same drugs, but only because the Canadian pharmaceutical industry agreed to price controls in exchange for increased patent protection. Specifically, the government agreed to extend the length of time before generic versions of patented drugs could come on the market, and the industry agreed to invest more money in research and development. So Canadians are getting what we bargained for and are, therefore, paying our fair share.

Those opposed to the export of Canadian drugs also suggest that they really have the best interests of Americans at heart. After all, they're not concerned about the profits of drug companies, they insist, but rather about safety, because, you know, those beer-swilling Canadians just can't be trusted to produce good stuff.

That position, which is held by the Food and Drug Administration, pharmaceutical firms and some senators and House members, was concisely articulated by National Assn. of Chain Drug Stores President Craig Fuller, who said, "Importation of prescription drugs is illegal because it's unsafe."

That one statement represents a masterful example of backward logic. There's no evidence that Canadian drug manufacturing and labeling standards are any less rigorous than those of the U.S. -- in fact, Canada tends to be the more cautious of the two countries in approving and marketing drugs. Several American studies, including one by the state of Illinois, confirm that Americans face no increased health risks in consuming Canadian pharmaceuticals.

Nevertheless, by making importation illegal, agencies like the FDA are prevented from ensuring such things as proper handling during personal importation. So importation may be unsafe, but only because it's illegal, which turns Fuller's statement on its head.

All of this is not to suggest that selling drugs to Americans is good for Canada. On the contrary, the Canadian health-care system is beginning to suffer from the mass exports.

Some pharmaceutical companies, including Bayer and Eli Lilly, are taking advantage of loopholes in their price control agreements and are beginning to raise the prices of drugs like Cipro and Zantac. In the last few months, some drug prices have risen almost 10%. And some companies are threatening to limit Canada's supply of drugs, which isn't good for anyone.

The present state of affairs can't continue. And it's up to the U.S. to find a solution because this is an American problem, even though it's causing problems in Canada. Canadian pharmaceutical manufacturers could stop providing drugs to Americans, of course, but that would violate the spirit of free trade, something Americans have championed for years.

So maybe the United States is the place where things are rapidly going wrong.

Blame America? No, that will never catch on.

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