The 30-second ad isn’t subtle. It opens with two pills, one emblazoned with the American flag, the other sporting a Canadian flag. “Which can you trust?” it asks.
“One is made with strict quality controls,” the ad says. “The other counterfeit from Chinese labs and shipped through Canada.”
The American pill, we’re told, “has guaranteed FDA authenticity and safety.” A nice, neat pharmacist in a white lab coat is shown carefully filling a prescription in a clean, healthy American drugstore.
The imagery shifts to what is apparently a dark, filthy Chinese lab, with medicine seemingly being manufactured in open containers of brown sludge.
“The Chinese pill is made from antifreeze, drywall, even road paint,” the ad declares.
“Protect the U.S. drug supply,” it concludes, “by rejecting policies that permit importation of counterfeit Canadian drugs.”
The spot, which was uploaded recently to YouTube, is from an organization called the Partnership for Safe Medicines. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that membership in this group is comprised primarily of U.S. drug companies and pharmacies.
Nor will anyone be shocked to learn that the U.S. drug industry works aggressively to prevent Americans from obtaining meds from Canadian pharmacies at a fraction of the cost charged in this country.
But I had no idea how heavy-handed and downright malicious the industry’s campaign had grown until I was contacted by the Canadian Consulate in Los Angeles, which wanted me to know it was worried Americans might, well, think poorly of their neighbor to the north.
“Our regulatory standards are as high as anything in your country,” said James Villeneuve, Canada’s consul general in Los Angeles. “All imported drugs are regulated and reviewed before reaching the public. First and foremost, we’re concerned about protecting Canadian citizens.”
Being Canadian, he was too polite to openly criticize the United States. But Villeneuve allowed that the ads from the Partnership for Safe Medicines are “very deceptive” and “kind of mean.”
There are a number of things worth pointing out. First, no country produces all its meds. While the majority of U.S. prescription drugs are manufactured domestically, this country is still the largest importer of drugs from abroad. More than $85 billion worth of drugs is brought in annually.
China isn’t a major exporter of finished drugs to the U.S., but it is a major supplier of active pharmaceutical ingredients used in making final products. China and India account for about 80% of all the active ingredients in prescription drugs sold in this country.
Last month, an article in the China Daily said tariffs on medical products proposed by the Trump administration could raise prices of “raw drug ingredients such as insulin used by diabetics, the anti-allergic-reaction drug epinephrine as well as vaccines, blood products and antidepressants.”
In November, the World Health Organization warned that sales of counterfeit drugs are rising in almost all countries as patients seek alternatives to high-priced meds available through normal channels.
The report cited the example of American doctors “buying cancer medicines over the internet” and “attempting to save $500 on the normal price of $2,400 per dose.” It said that “19 medical practices exposed their clients to falsified cancer medicines containing no active ingredients.”
Nevertheless, the WHO says that in developed countries such as the U.S. — and Canada — the percentage of counterfeit drugs sold is very low, perhaps just 1%.
Like the U.S., Canada tells its citizens to be careful about buying drugs online. “Some internet pharmacies are legitimate, but many offer products and services that are dangerous,” it says.
And like the U.S., Canada closely inspects all drugs imported from elsewhere.
Americans are prevented by law from importing medicine, even though millions of people, including many seniors on fixed incomes, are believed to do it.
One way to avoid being ripped off is to make sure an online drugstore bears the seal of the Canadian International Pharmacy Assn., which requires that members be licensed by the Canadian government. Check the site against the membership list on the association’s website.
“We have very, very strict regulations on anything that comes into Canada,” Villeneuve told me. “We manage our drug supply for our own citizens, so of course we are careful.”
Yet another ad from the Partnership for Safe Medicines claims the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “recently told Congress that 85% of drugs intercepted from Canada were actually from other countries.”
“And with the Canadian government not inspecting these drugs, it’s impossible to know if these drugs could end up on your pharmacy’s shelves,” it said.
In fact, that 85% figure was from Robert Califf, an FDA official who had been nominated by former President Obama to serve as the agency’s commissioner.
During a 2016 confirmation hearing, Califf told lawmakers that “while nearly half of imported drugs claimed to be Canadian or from Canadian pharmacies, 85% of such drugs were actually from different countries.”
In other words, he was highlighting the fact that many websites purporting to be online Canadian pharmacies are in fact fraudulent, which is a concern but not exactly what the Partnership was claiming.
This, in turn, undermines that bit about the Canadian government not inspecting drugs. If the drugs are being fraudulently sold from third countries, the Canadian government would have nothing to do with the transaction.
Then there’s the ad’s kicker: “Importing drugs from Canada puts every U.S. patient at risk.”
Except for, you know, that it doesn’t.
I laid all this out for Shabbir Safdar, executive director of the Partnership for Safe Medicines.
I asked whether it was misleading to suggest that “drugs from Canada” endanger Americans when the risk clearly is from counterfeit drugs that originate elsewhere. I asked how the Canadian government could be held accountable for inspecting such drugs.
I asked if the Partnership was engaging in baseless fear-mongering.
Safdar answered none of those questions.
He said by email that “the Partnership for Safe Medicines is committed to the safety of prescription drugs and protecting consumers against counterfeit, substandard or otherwise unsafe medicines. We are dedicated to protecting the safety of American consumers by curbing the manufacturing and sale of dangerous counterfeit drugs.”
“Our goal is for all consumers to be aware that counterfeit medicines do exist, they are not safe and together we can take action to avoid them,” Safdar said. “Our latest ads help raise this awareness.”
They don’t. They shamelessly deceive to protect the profits of U.S. drug companies at the expense of American patients, maligning Canada in the process.
I asked Villeneuve whether the ads were hurtful to his country.
“I’ve watched them a few times,” he replied. “They seem somewhat inflammatory.”
For a Canadian, that’s harsh criticism indeed.