Council Considers Offering Data on Canadian Drugs

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to study setting up a website to help residents buy less expensive drugs imported from Canada, although such purchases are illegal.

The website, if approved by the council, could be operating by this summer. It probably would be modeled on a San Francisco Department of Public Health website that steers visitors to the sites of three Canadian firms that sell prescription drugs to Americans.

It is against federal law to buy prescription drugs from Canada, although Americans are believed to spend about $1.5 billion a year on such purchases. Some prescription medicines are 40% cheaper in Canada than in the United States.

The Food and Drug Administration condemns such purchases but has largely looked the other way. The Canadian government is also considering a proposal that would ban such sales.


Councilman Dennis Zine first broached the idea last February, when he asked the city attorney to study whether the city could directly buy drugs from Canada.

The city’s legal experts replied that it would be illegal for the city to directly buy drugs, but that it would be within the law to set up a website to help consumers purchase the drugs, although it should include caveats about legal and safety issues.

“I have seniors telling me that they can’t afford to take their medications and put food on the table,” Zine said. “If it wasn’t for the millions spent by lobbyists for the pharmaceutical companies in Washington, we’d already have this.”

William Hubbard, the FDA’s associate director of policy and planning, said he “vociferously” opposed Zine’s proposal.


“It means a public official is telling their constituents that this is something OK to do,” Hubbard said. “But these drugs are unregulated, and it leads people to believe that the drugs have been screened in some way or that the government is stepping forward and saying they’re safe and it’s not true.”

Hubbard said the FDA has mostly anecdotal information about Americans being harmed by drugs sold in Canada but no hard statistics.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health website warns visitors that it is illegal to buy drugs from Canada. It also provides information that notes that consumers may save money by purchasing generic drugs in the United States.

The site has been very popular, said Sharon Kotabe, an associate administrator of pharmaceutical services for the department. She said that the agency had not heard from the FDA, and that she did not believe that the website breaks the law.


“I don’t think it’s illegal to give information on how people can decrease the cost of their prescription drugs,” Kotabe said.

Several other cities and states are considering or have started drug importation programs. Minnesota has an online pharmacy to help state residents buy Canadian drugs.

The FDA has asked the state to stop but has not gone to court. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has vowed to continue the program, even if Canada bans the practice, saying that the state would then turn to safe pharmacies in Europe.