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U.S. Presses Canada to Crack Down on Cross-Border Prescription

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MONTREAL, Nov 23 (AFP) - Amid growing US demand for low-priced prescription drugs from Canada, Washington is pressing Ottowa to crack down on Internet pharmacies that sell to US citizens in defiance of US regulations.

This week US Food and Drug Administration commissioner Mark McClellan travelled to the Canadian capital to plead the case of US drug companies, who say the transborder commerce poses health risks to Americans.

"We have seen lots of examples of unsafe drugs coming into the United States from Canada: unapproved medicines, medicines that were not stored properly, medicines that were dispensed in the wrong amounts or without a physician's labeling," he said.

Diane Gorman, assistant deputy minister of Health Canada, replied that the sales do not violate Canadian laws, and vigorously defended her agency's safety record.

"We have no evidence at this time, in the context of Internet pharmacies, that there are unsafe products going to the United States. It's very clear that Canada's safety record is second to none internationally."

Patented prescription drugs are up to 50 percent cheaper in Canada due to price controls, nonexistent in the United States.

US clients choose medications on the Internet, then mail a prescription signed by their US doctor. A Canadian practitioner countersigns the prescription, the US consumer pays with a credit card and receives the drugs by mail.

Cheaper Canadian medications are in such high demand that bus trips across the border to buy bargain drugs have been organized in the United States.

Ironically, the products purchased in Canada are often made in the United States and exported to Canada.

Major pharmaceuticals such as Eli Lilly, Astra Zenca, Pfizer, and GlaxoSmithKline -- frustrated by the loss of customers in the world's most lucrative drug market -- have begun limiting their deliveries to Internet pharmacies suspected of doing business in the United States.

Canadian medical associations have also decided to fight the cyber drug trade, forbidding their members to prescribe drugs to patients they have not examined.

"Some doctors have been censured. There will be an inquiry and they may be fined or be suspended," said William Pope, spokesman for the College of Doctors at Manitoba, the central-western province where many Internet pharmacies are located.

Some say sales to the United States hurt Canadians by diminishing drug supplies and by luring pharmacists to Internet pharmacies, where salaries are higher.

The Coalition for Pharmacies in Manitoba sites a glaring shortage of pharmacies in provincial hospitals and communities.

But the provincial government, with an eye on the economic benefits of the commerce, does not agree, saying the Internet pharmacies create jobs.

Pharmaceutical firms are suggesting a solution: end price regulation in Canada which, they say, deprives the country of cash to invest in research and development.

"Canada represents two percent of the world market in pharmaceutical products and receives only one percent of research investments," said Jacques Lefebvre, president of RxD, an association of Canadian laboratories. "Canada is one of the most difficult environments for innovation."

Pope is fatalistic about the future of Internet pharmacies. "Let's be realistic," he said. "We are small potatoes and the bottom line is that they won't let this go and they will nail us."



COPYRIGHT 2003 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

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