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AARP survey finds strong support for legalizing drug imports

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Jul. 15--A new poll by the AARP says about eight out of 10 older Americans favor legalizing the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, while the same number said the issue will play an important role when they vote this year.

The lobbying organization representing people 50 and over released its results yesterday as a bipartisan group of US senators continued its campaign to bring an importation bill to the floor, where advocates believe they have the votes required for passage. Politicians should take heed, says AARP.

"The depth of feeling and the breadth indicate that they ignore it only at their own peril," said Michael Naylor, the organization's director of advocacy. "I have spoken to groups of older Americans all over the country, and this one really resonates with them."

Respondents in the telephone survey of 1,267 people over 50 said they favored imports because they are cheaper, while others opposed the practice because consumers could receive unsafe drugs. Even with the safety argument introduced, the AARP poll found that 79 percent said foreign drugs should be legalized, while 9 percent said they should remain illegal; 73 percent said they would order drugs from Canada for themselves if it were legal.

The sentiment in favor of cross-border medicine shipments cuts across demographic, ideological, and even party lines, according to the poll. Seventy-nine percent said legalizing imported drugs would be an important consideration when they cast their ballots in the fall elections.

While the poll didn't specify which candidates people would vote for based on their position on imports, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry is a cosponsor of the Senate import bill. President Bush opposes importation.

High prices have pushed millions of Americans to Internet pharmacies based in Canada, where the same drugs are available as in the United States but at 20 to 80 percent discounts. Importing from Canadian pharmacies is illegal, but the Food and Drug Administration has looked the other way when it comes to delivery of supplies to individuals.

The AARP survey, conducted this month, produced results similar to other national polls. A survey by The Associated Press in February found that about 66 percent of Americans support imports. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group, said that it has given survey respondents detailed arguments pro and con and found 69 percent support for imports.

The results for those polls were for Americans over age 18. But the AARP survey, with a margin of error of 2.5 percent, is among the most comprehensive to date focusing exclusively on importation and suggests it will be an issue among voters since 66 percent of people over 50 vote -- a higher percentage than the general public.

AARP has spent close to $1 million on advertising in favor of a bipartisan Senate bill that would legalize importation from Canada and the European Union. In addition to Kerry, the bill is sponsored by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, and Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, among others.

Dorgan said in an interview this week that, absent positive signs from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office, the group is actively looking for a bill that will serve as a vehicle for an amendment so a vote can be taken before the election. Frist, a Tennessee Republican who has joined the White House in opposition to importation, has said he expects a debate but has not committed to a timetable.

A study released yesterday by Boston University reinforced why the high cost of medicines is a hot issue in this year's election. Drug costs as a percentage of Americans' income rose 50 percent from 1998 to 2002, from 1.2 percent to 1.8 percent nationally, the study said.

AARP said in May that drug companies have raised prices from 2000 to 2003 three times faster than the rate of inflation.


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