Senate Opens ‘Massive Hole’ in Drug Importation Ban

Published August 1, 2006

On July 13, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a $32.8 billion FY 2007 appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security.

The measure includes a controversial provision that would prohibit U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents from seizing prescription drugs imported by individuals from mail-order Canadian pharmacies or carried over the border. That provision was approved by a 68-32 Senate vote on July 11.

Sending a Message

The drug importation proposal was introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA). When it was first offered, Nelson and Vitter would have allowed imports from Mexico as well, but opposition caused them to narrow the bill to allow only Canadian imports.

Vitter said he wanted Congress to send a message that Customs agents ought to focus on securing the nation against terrorism, not “stripping small amounts of prescription drugs from the hands of seniors.” Nelson has called for an investigation of seizures of mail-order medications by Customs agents.

‘Massive Hole’ in Security

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, voted against the drug importation provision on July 11, although he ultimately voted in favor of the appropriations bill that included the provision. He said drug importation would open a “massive hole in our capacity to secure our borders and protect ourselves.”

Robert Goldberg, Ph.D., vice president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, agreed. “Banning Customs enforcement is tantamount to giving terrorists a free pass to flood America with fake and dangerous drugs,” he warned.

Joseph Bast, president of The Heartland Institute and publisher of Health Care News, noted, “by punching holes in the chain of custody that protects the safety of America’s drug supply, the Nelson-Vitter proposal exposes everyone to the risks of counterfeit and adulterated drugs.”

“Canada is already the favorite port of call for fake medicines,” Goldberg explained. “According to Customs, most of these drugs are not shipped through wholesale distribution channels but directly to consumers, with Canada being the major transshipment point because of its access to the U.S. market.”

Goldberg pointed out that in 2003, “the FDA and Customs confiscated thousands of drug shipments headed for the U.S. When opened, nearly half claimed to be of Canadian origin but, according to FDA and Customs officials, 85 percent of them were from 27 other countries–such as China, Iran, and Ecuador. And 30 percent of the drugs were counterfeit.”

A Failed, Unnecessary Idea

“The failure of plans that facilitate cross-border piracy of prescription drugs, such as Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s, should have buried this idea long ago,” said John R. Graham, director of health care studies for the Pacific Research Institute.

“For years,” noted Graham, “health policy analysts have proposed free-market solutions to reduce prices for prescription drugs, and it is a damning indictment of the senators’ willful ignorance that they continue to avoid these solutions and promote government power instead.”

“The Senate vote confirms that so long as there are people who want a free lunch at someone else’s expense, there will be politicians willing to pander to them,” said Bast. “But with a prescription drug benefit for seniors now in place under Medicare, demand for drugs from Canada and other countries is falling sharply.

“Moreover,” Bast continued, “the spread of generics and migration of some medications from prescription to over-the-counter also are making drugs more affordable than ever before. The hysteria over high drug prices, fanned to a fever pitch in the last election cycle, was never based on real data. Drug importation was and still is a non-issue for most people.”

‘Political Expediency

“The great irony with this bill is that recently, a number of members of Congress–many of them past supporters of importation–proposed legislation to try to stem the tide of counterfeit drugs coming into the country,” said Merrill Matthews, Ph.D., director of the Council for Affordable Health Insurance. “Two years ago, many of these same members were crying ‘Show us the bodies!’ of people harmed by importation.

“Well, there are bodies out there. The press has covered the stories,” Matthews continued. “Politicians know that counterfeit drugs pose a real problem, and yet they still want to pass legislation. You just never want to underestimate the ability of a member of Congress to hold two completely contradictory views at the same time.”

“Advocates of drug importation see passage of this amendment as their camel’s nose under the tent to legalize imports of price-controlled drugs from Canada,” said Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute. “Drug importation advocates from both parties have consistently been reckless in turning a deaf ear to concerns about safety, and the Senate has ignored the pleadings of those responsible for our nation’s security in attaching this amendment to Homeland Security legislation. Senators are trading political expediency for our nation’s safety and are potentially endangering public health in the process.”

Conference Committee Next

The Senate-passed appropriations bill must now be reconciled in conference with the one passed by the House of Representatives on June 6. The House version included similar drug importation language.

But drug importation proposals have been in this position before. In 2005, Vitter and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) proposed attaching a drug importation amendment to the 2006 agriculture appropriations bill. President George W. Bush threatened to use his first-ever veto to block the appropriations bill if it included the drug importation language. That proved unnecessary, as drug importation did not survive House-Senate negotiations.

Diane Carol Bast ([email protected]) is vice president of The Heartland Institute and executive editor of Health Care News.

For more information …

PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database, offers more than 130 documents addressing prescription drug importation. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and choose the topic/subtopic combination Health Care/Drugs: Importation.