Jewish World Review Oct. 11, 2004 / 26 Tishrei, 5765

Froma Harrop

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Consumer Reports

Illegal, but . . . — drug imports busting out all over | CHICAGO — IT LOOKED LIKE just another ribbon-cutting for a new government program. Appearing before reporters here, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced a plan to help residents buy cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and elsewhere.

Actually, the event was quite remarkable, because almost no one had paid any mind to this central point: The program is totally, absolutely and positively illegal. Only the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may approve the importing of drugs, and it has refused to do so.

Blagojevich's new program is just the latest display of blatant and growing civil disobedience. States and cities are roaring past laws that forbid drug imports as though they were weeds on a highway. (The Chicago Tribune's coverage of the program included a dry consumer-advice piece telling folks how to enroll.)

This being an election year — and drug prices being a hot issue — the Bush administration has chosen to stand by passively as the public stomps on its rules. Now is no time to defend laws that force Americans to pay as much as twice the Canadian price for made-in-U.S.A. medications — laws widely seen as a gift to the pharmaceutical industry.

Joining Blagojevich at the news conference was Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, who said his state would join Illinois's program. Republicans charged the two Democrats with pulling a publicity stunt aimed at embarrassing President Bush on a highly touchy subject. Wisconsin is a battleground state.

Bush deserves to be embarrassed over these policies, but these pointed challenges to federal authority are hardly a Democratic plot. Politicians of both parties have been giving the drug-import law the raspberry. And many Republicans are defying the ban with gusto.

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No other governor has gone as fast or far in ignoring the law as Republican Tim Pawlenty, of Minnesota. Ten months ago, Pawlenty launched the first state program to help residents buy drugs from Canada. He even waived the co-payments for state workers who get their prescriptions by mail from Canadian pharmacies.

Pawlenty also shows no remorse for disobeying his president so openly. He said allowing drug imports would pressure the federal government and pharmaceutical industry to mend their ways and give Americans a break on price. And he accused the drug makers of playing the United States for "a chump." As for the threat that federal officials might drag him into court for aiding and abetting the illegal importation of drugs, Pawlenty said in so many words: Make my day.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire's Republican governor, Craig Benson, has also set up a program with Web site to put residents in contact with Canadian pharmacies. His Republican counterpart in North Dakota, John Hoeven, has done likewise.

The issue burns most brightly near the Canadian border, where residents see the price gap up close. But the controversy has moved well south, to places like Louisiana. There, all four candidates for an open Senate seat are tripping over each other to grab the title of Most Enthusiastic Defender of Drug Imports. (The two top vote getters will meet in a runoff election.)

Chances are good that Bush, if re-elected, will continue to avoid confrontation with state and city officials. Rather, he will wait until other forces dry up the availability of Canadian drugs. For example, American pharmaceutical companies are beginning to limit how much of their product they send to Canada. (Blagojevich refuses to identify the foreign suppliers in the Illinois program, lest the drug makers punish them.)

In any case, Canada set up its drug-distribution system to serve its 33 million citizens — not them plus 293 million Americans. At a certain point, exploding U.S. demand is going to cause drug shortages and other problems in Canada, and Ottawa will have to act. That point may be near. Later this month, a coalition of Canadian cancer associations, retirees and other groups plan to ask their government to rein in drug sales to Americans.

Of course, Washington should be solving the problem of high U.S. drug prices, not Ottawa. And someday, an administration will have the guts to wrestle with the pharmaceutical companies. Until that happens, Americans will remain drug refugees in foreign lands.

And local governments will continue to flout the federal laws. As far the states and cities are concerned, it's every man for himself.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.