U.S. to allow drugs mailed from Canada;

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Customs vows to stop confiscating small shipments.

Orlando Sentinel (Florida)

Americans who buy Canadian drugs no longer have to worry about their packages being seized at the border.

The U.S. government announced Tuesday that it will stop confiscating small shipments of Canadian medicines, reversing months of aggressive seizures that claimed at least 40,000 packages nationwide.

It’s still illegal to import drugs from Canada or any country. But the change means that the federal government is backing off recent enforcement efforts that have rankled the often-elderly consumers who rely on Canada for less-expensive medications.

“It’s great news,” said Mount Dora resident Jean Edes, 74, who gets three prescriptions from across the border. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to buy drugs from Canada.”

The Bush administration still maintains that the practice is dangerous because the medications could be counterfeit or otherwise inferior. And a spokeswoman with U.S. Customs said Tuesday that the policy shift does not mean the drugs are safe.

“We just decided to focus our resources differently,” said Lynn Hollinger of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. “We are still very committed to protecting the American public from these medications.”

But U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said the safety concerns are baseless, as long as consumers are dealing with legitimate Canadian pharmacies. The Florida Democrat said his office has received at least 100 complaints in recent months from consumers who had packages intercepted.

“Customs has a lot on its plate,” Nelson said. “Instead of picking on individual seniors who need their medications, they ought to be going after” companies that are importing large shipments of counterfeit drugs.

Nelson and others in Congress have been pushing the government to ease up on Canadian drugs for years. In response, lawmakers this summer crafted a measure to allow Americans who visit Canada to bring small amounts of drugs back without risk of having them confiscated.

On Tuesday, Customs eased the restrictions even more — making it possible again for Americans to simply order their prescriptions by mail without fear that they would be seized.

The Canadian pharmacy industry applauded the move Tuesday. Gord Haugh of the Canadian International Pharmacy Association said his members have been struggling with product seizures.

“It’s been a huge problem,” said Haugh, whose group represents 26 of the larger Canadian pharmacies that do business with U.S. consumers. “If they indeed stop, that’s wonderful news.”

Previous studies have estimated as many as 2 million Americans buy drugs from Canada, where the prices average 30 percent to 50 percent less than the same medicines in America. Canadian drugs are less expensive because the government limits what makers can charge.

Haugh said demand from U.S. consumers is down this year, estimating that about $500 million in Canadian drugs has been sold to Americans, down from a peak of $800 million in earlier years.

Some consumer groups also supported the policy change, though one advocacy organization said its timing so close to the midterm congressional elections suggests it has more to do with “public relations” than drug policy.

Jerry Flanagan of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said the government still has not done anything about the underlying problem: the high price of U.S. drugs. His group thinks the federal government should adopt a Canadian-style approach to drug-cost management and negotiate with the drug industry to buy U.S. medicines in bulk.

“If Congress and the Bush administration were serious about lowering prescription-drug costs, they would adopt policies that allow American people to buy cheaper drugs at the stores in their own neighborhoods,” he said. “We certainly think people should have the option of buying from Canada, but the point is, they shouldn’t have to.”

As for Edes, she suspects that politics is at the core of the new policy.

“I have a horrible feeling that it’s all political,” she said. “The Republicans are in hot water with so many things right now; they want to make the American people aware of something good” before the November elections.
Robyn Shelton can be reached at [email protected] or 407-420-5487. Mark K. Matthews can be reached at 202-824-8222 or [email protected]

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