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Public demand for cheaper Rx drugs pressures lawmakers

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WASHINGTON -- Louisiana Republican Billy Tauzin III is benefiting from his father's name and connections as he faces a runoff Saturday for Rep. Billy Tauzin Jr.'s congressional seat. But there's one thing father and son don't share -- the congressman's fierce opposition to allowing legal importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.

Anyone searching for signs of how the politics of prescription drugs are playing need look no further than one of the two 2004 congressional elections yet to be settled in Louisiana.

The senior Tauzin led the fight in the House of Representatives against legalizing a practice many Americans already do privately -- buying medicine from Canada, where government controls make prices up to 70% cheaper than in the USA. His son is embracing the other side of the issue as he faces Democrat Charlie Melancon, who also supports legal imports.

As Congress prepares to convene in January, Republicans as well as Democrats say the younger Tauzin's position is a reflection of how public demand for cheaper drugs is pressuring lawmakers to act.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley predicts GOP leaders will bow to public pressure and allow a vote on legalizing imports from Canada and some other nations. ''It will come up, and it will pass,'' Grassley says.

Supporters say the goal is to provide drugs at prices lower than those charged in the United States by pharmaceutical companies, which claim those levels are needed to fund research into future cures. Opponents call it a back-door way to import government price controls on pharmaceuticals that Congress is unwilling to enact.

Canadian officials have voiced alarm that permitting large-scale imports by U.S. retailers or wholesalers could leave the Canadian system short of medicine. ''We certainly cannot be the drugstore for the United States of America,'' Canadian Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh said in a recent address at Harvard Medical School, according to The Boston Globe. And drugmakers have threatened to withhold supplies to Canada in retaliation. But so far, drug sales from Canada to the U.S. have continued to grow.

Although President Bush has opposed making imports legal, he signaled he was willing to consider it during the presidential campaign.

A task force of administration officials is to report Dec. 8 to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson on whether safety can be assured if drugs are imported. Current law permits the HHS secretary to allow Canadian imports of prescription drugs if he certifies they are safe. The administration could short-circuit congressional action by ruling on its own to permit cheaper Canadian imports under certain conditions.

HHS spokesman Bill Pierce declined to comment on the report. He said the panel's members, all government employees, are under orders not to disclose its contents.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., says Tauzin's campaign ''tells you where the politics is on this. It is no longer debated. People know in this country that people in both Europe and Canada pay 50% less than Americans do for the same drugs. Those drugs are as safe as the ones we find here in the United States.''

Opponents argue that drugs from other countries cannot be guaranteed safe. Court Rosen, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said importing drugs ''is just too risky and too dangerous.''

That argument has been undercut by the recent shortage of flu vaccines, which highlighted U.S. dependence on foreign drug manufacturers. The U.S. government turned to Canada for extra vaccine.

The House voted 243-186 to permit legal imports in 2003. But the issue never reached the Senate, even though Majority Leader Bill Frist had promised a vote.

Nick Smith, a spokesman for Frist, says he has seen no change. ''Sen. Frist believes that safety is the No. 1 issue,'' he says.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who opposed the drug importation bill, was attending a retreat with other GOP congressional leaders Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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