TORONTO, Canada -- Canada will no longer be a cheap "drug store for the United States," its health minister warned Wednesday, saying Ottawa intends to ban the bulk export of prescription drugs when supplies are low at home.
The move is an attempt to head-off an anticipated onslaught of drug demands from Americans if legislation currently pending in the U.S. Congress legalizes Internet and bulk import of prescription drugs from Canada.
"Canada cannot be a drug store for the United States of America; 280 million people cannot expect us to supply drugs to them on a continuous, uncontrolled basis," Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh told a news conference.
Dosanjh said he must ensure Canadians have access to an adequate supply of safe and affordable prescription drugs, and would launch initiatives, including legislative and regulatory changes, to protect the supply.
Dosanjh, in an ambiguous statement, said he intended to introduce legislation when the House of Commons reconvenes this fall that would allow for the temporary ban of bulk exports when supplies are running low at home.
He also intends to establish a drug supply network within the federal ministry Health Canada and work with provinces and pharmaceutical companies to provide more comprehensive data on Canada's prescription drug supply.
"We are in fact looking at a host of issues," he said. "The legislation would definitely mean a ban on large-scale drug exports to the United States, particularly when there's a shortage here."
Americans pay the highest prescription drug prices in the world, so U.S. lawmakers are pushing to legalize the importation of wholesale prescription drugs or purchases over the Internet from Canada and other countries. Four bills are pending in Congress, but have met with opposition from the pharmaceutical lobby and from the Food and Drug Administration.
While it's legal in Canada for pharmacies to mail Americans drugs - after having been faxed or mailed their physician's prescriptions - it's illegal in the United States, though the laws are generally not enforced.
The concern in Ottawa is that if those bills are passed, cheaper wholesale drugs will flow to the United States and hurt the supply chain in this much smaller country of 34 million people.
"In light of potential American legislation legalizing the bulk import of Canadian prescription and other medications, our priority must be the health and safety of all Canadians and the strength of our health care system," Dosanjh said.
Some worry the long-anticipated move could kill a US$700 million ([euro]581 million) industry that has become increasingly popular with underinsured American patients.
The Bush administration opposes the prescription drug imports, and federal regulators warn they cannot guarantee the safety of drugs from outside U.S. borders.
Canada has dismissed concerns about the safety of drugs sold in Canada, saying Canada's regulatory regime was tougher than the one in the United States.
Some consumer advocates say many lower-income Americans have no choice but to turn to Canada for their lifesaving medications.
"Americans are only buying drugs from Canada because President (George W.) Bush and Congress, with their cozy ties to the pharmaceutical industry, refuse to support a prescription drug bulk purchasing plan," said David Fink of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in California, whose group has sponsored trips to Canada for Americans seeking cheaper drugs.
"Seniors and other patients shouldn't have to rely on other countries to get the drugs they need," he said.
As part of its socialized medical system, the Canadian government sets drug prices typically 40 percent lower than those in the United States.
Under current practice, a prescription from a U.S. doctor is faxed to a Canadian doctor, who reviews the document along with the patient's health history. The Canadian doctor will then sign and fax the prescription to a so-called Internet pharmacy, which ships the drug to the patient.
Canadian officials say such sales endanger the Canadian drug supply, although Dosanjh acknowledged no shortages currently exist. When pushed, the minister also conceded he was not aware of any injuries or illnesses to Americans stemming from drugs purchased in Canada.
"I'm not aware of any serious issues, but I'm one of those people that don't want to wait for a tragedy to happen before we act," he told a teleconference with American reporters.
The Canadian government also maintains it is unethical for doctors to sign prescriptions without examining patients. Dosanjh said the definition of patient-physician relationship had to be firmed up. He would not confirm whether that meant American patients would have to meet face-to-face with Canadian doctors, saying the matter needed further study.
Jeff Uhl, a Winnipeg pharmacist, president of the Internet pharmacy, www.universaldrugstores.com, and a member of the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, applauded the government's attempts to tighten regulations on prescription drug sales.
But he insisted that Internet outfits should not be targeted, because they only deal with individuals and not bulk sales.
He said his Internet firm fills about 1,000 prescriptions a day. Nearly all of them are from Americans, "simply because the prices are so ridiculously high down there."