Drug Import Idea Risky, Exec Says

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Times Staff Writer

The chief executive of Orange County’s largest biomedical company wants Supervisor Chuck Smith to reconsider his effort to allow county employees to buy discounted prescription drugs from Canadian pharmacies.

David Pyott, president and chief executive of Allergan, told the supervisor in a letter received last week that importing drugs from Canada was dangerous and a threat to the state and local economy.

“Unsavory interests the world over are counterfeiting drugs and capitalizing on Canada’s inability to secure its borders,” Pyott wrote. “Many back-alley, pseudo-pharmacies are leveraging Canada’s postmark to exploit an otherwise out-of-reach U.S. marketplace.”


Allergan is an Irvine company that produces a variety of skin and ophthalmic medicines, including the wrinkle-reducing drug Botox. The company, which reported $1.75 billion in sales in 2003, employs 1,500 people in Orange County. Pyott said his company was a significant contributor to the county’s economy.

“Your proposition to import drugs from Canada -- that is illegal under federal law -- is unsafe and I believe is economically unsound for the general economy of Orange County,” Pyott wrote.

Smith said he was not swayed by Pyott’s letter and intended ask the Board of Supervisors to approve a pilot program that would allow some employees to pursue drug discounts from pharmacies in Canada and other countries. Prescription medicine is cheaper in Canada because of government regulations on pricing.

“If stopping some company from charging inflated prices damages the Orange County economy, then we’re in big, big trouble,” Smith said. “I’m interested in saving people money more than helping some company make huge profits.”

Attempts to reach Allergan officials for comment Monday were unsuccessful.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that it is illegal for individuals to import prescription drugs, the government has not prosecuted any of several U.S. cities and counties that have programs allowing employees access to the international discounts. Smith has estimated that Orange County government could save $2 million or more through such a program.

Even though the drugs imported from Canada could be identical to those sold in the United States, Pyott said in his letter to Smith that “Canada cannot be counted on to preserve their purity, potency and safety once they have left the jurisdiction of [U.S. regulators].”


David MacKay, executive director of the Canadian International Pharmacy Assn., said Allergan’s letter was simply an attempt to retain the right to charge inflated prices in the United States.

“It’s really inappropriate for these pharmaceutical companies to try to smear us because we’re selling their products. If harm ever came to an American consumer [from a medicine purchased in Canada] they’d have a lot of explaining to do. We’re just the pass-through,” MacKay said.