Buy-from-Canada storefronts are multiplying fast. Tulsa, Okla.-
based RxDepot opened its doors in 2002. By early August, there were 74 RXDepots
in 24 states, according to RXDepot President Carl Moore. Florida has about 150
such storefronts, he
The Florida pharmacy board has taken no action. Others are
ready to pounce. In May, the Kentucky Board of Pharmacy director told the
Louisville Courier-Journal that if a storefront opens in Kentucky, "We will
proceed fairly quickly with an injunction."
The U.S. Congress appears to be going in the other direction.
Both houses have passed bills that would legalize prescription drug-buying from
Canada. Those bills are stuck in committee. And politicians are stuck between
increasingly angry seniors and a pharmaceutical industry that contributed more
than $20 million to congressional campaigns in 2002.
The FDA warns that Canadian Internet pharmacies don't have
enough drugs to supply the United States, so counterfeits are inevitable. If we
get the orders, we'll get the drugs, Canadian pharmacies say.
No, you won't, the pharmaceutical companies say. Three of the
world's largest pharmaceutical companies — Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and
GlaxoSmithKline — are trying to cut the Canadian pharmacies off at the pass.
They have announced they will cut off supplies to Canadian Internet pharmacies
that buy drugs at wholesale prices, then resell them to Americans at Canadian
prices. Canadian wholesalers are planning end runs.
"There are antitrust issues here," said WVU's Outterman. "You
can't tell people who they can sell to."
Canadians have a lot of money at stake, too. Like West
Virginia, the province of Manitoba is economically stressed. The Canadian
Internet pharmacy business is centered there. "Suddenly, they have access to
millions of customers," Outterman observed.
Earle Turow, chairman of Discount Drugs of Canada, told Newsday
he expects his organization to clear $100 million next year. He thinks the
Internet industry should be internationally regulated, not shut down, he
"We're doing good work for the seniors," Turow
running a straight business. If they try to shut us down, they're going to be
confronted with a major uprising from the seniors."
"If you look at this logically," said Carl Moore of
RXDepot, "do you think, with that World Wide Web, that these people are going
to be able to hold 400 million people hostage with prices that are two and
three times as high as anywhere else in the world?
"You've got the big pharmacy companies scared to death," he
enterprise in this country."
"a genuine consumer revolt"
In Fairmont, Howard Postlethwaite plopped down for the first
time on one of Discount Prescription's folding chairs. "How're your legal
troubles coming?" he asked Steve Becker, as if the two were old
At age 70, Postlewaite is diligently investigating drug prices.
The retired life insurance agent has decided he and his wife can no longer
afford their Medigap insurance. He is trying to find ways they can afford their
"I'm a radical when it comes to pharmaceutical companies," he
gone up." He has figured out that it will cost him more to keep the insurance
than to shop around and buy from other countries.
Postlethwaite has systematically researched the subject on the
Internet. "The pharmaceutical companies have over 600 lobbyists registered in
D.C., and they give millions a year to politicians," he said, so he doesn't
believe Congress will actually pass anything that gives Medicare prescription
"It's all for the campaign," he
they'll forget about it."
He is determined to get those low prices. "I have to," he
driving up to Canada every three months."
Earlier this month, a Washington Post editorial called the
American consumer's increasingly defiant determination to buy from Canada "a
genuine consumer revolt."
An Internet search turned up at least 26 stories about the FDA
effort to shut down the storefronts. The stories come from many states:
Delaware, Indiana, Florida, Arkansas and Montana, among others.
Washington Times that "I have to work an extra job so that I could pay for my
pills. I have no idea why our government wants to force us to buy these drugs
from Canada. But that's what we will do."
don't know how they [FDA] think poor people — you know, on Social Security and
fixed incomes — can do it," she
cheaper, I'm going to."
mother has flat refused to buy her heart medicine [at American prices] because
it costs more than she gets in a month."
Earlier this summer, the city of Springfield, Mass., announced
that it will buy prescription drugs through Canada for its employees and
retirees, saving the city $4 million to $9 million a year.
The FDA commissioner asked Springfield's mayor to reconsider,
for the safety of his city's citizens. The mayor said he has bought his son's
diabetes medication from Canada for years and has heard of no safety problems
with the Canadian supply.
drugs a utility?
Given consumers' determination to get low prices, all this
legal action could paradoxically make the market less safe for consumers, said
law professor Outterson.
"If they shut down Canadian outlets that can be regulated, they
will be sending American customers to highly unregulated outlets that truly
might be dangerous." Thailand, Brazil and India all ship large quantities of
much-less-regulated drugs worldwide, for instance.
Outterson suggests that, if West Virginia wants to find a
creative solution, it might make more sense to explore ways to let state
pharmacists buy prescription drugs through Canada, then perhaps tack on a
"The political atmosphere is right for something like this," he
"That would probably set up a furious battle between the state
of West Virginia and the pharmaceutical companies and the federal government.
But wouldn't that be a glorious fight? The state and the citizens could save
tens of millions of dollars a year in drug costs. I think at the end of the
day, West Virginia would win."
The pharmaceutical companies sued when Maine announced it was
going to use its Medicaid clout to demand lower prices, and the Supreme Court
ruled in Maine's favor earlier this year, he noted.
In Fairmont, Steve Becker is philosophical. The U.S. Senate has
passed a bill that would let U.S. pharmacies import Canadian drugs.
If Congress were to pass it, he'd probably be out of business.
If that happens, he said, he would be happy for his customers and go back to
Whatever happens, he predicts, U.S. pharmaceutical drugs will
eventually be regulated as a utility. "Americans won't tolerate these prices
much longer, he
"The pharmaceutical companies have worked very hard over the
past 40 years to convince the American people that we can't do without their
products and services. And the American people have bought it. The vast
majority now believe that they can't make it without these pharmaceuticals." he
pharmaceutical companies are utilities."
West Virginians average 15 prescriptions a year, 4 more than
the national average, according to Blue Cross Blue Shield of America.
"We have traditionally regarded utilities as those goods and
services that society cannot do without," Becker
"That goes right to the heart of the pharmaceutical company's
argument that this is a free market. The necessity of those goods to our
"We are totally dependent on pharmaceuticals," he
to me, that makes them a utility."
A lot must happen to get from here to reasonable regulation, he
He and his wife will play their small parts in this international drama
by going to court in October.
To contact staff writer Kate Long, use e-mail or call 348-