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Buying Drugs Across the Border

Discount pharmacies line the borders. But do these drugs meet U.S. standards? Read this before you cross the line.

Handled With Care?

The government is right to warn consumers about the dangers of using unregulated drugs, but simply issuing warnings about drug safety without addressing the underlying economic issues is like putting a small bandage on a large wound, says Gail Shearer, director of health policy analysis for Consumers Union.

"The tragedy right now is that the government has really been asleep at the switch and not paying enough attention to the fact that reimported drugs are a reality of the marketplace. Really not enough has been done to protect people and to help guide people who are doing it," Shearer says.

For its part, the FDA warns that drug safety regulations differ from one country to the next and that people who buy drugs over the Internet or across the border can't be sure that the drugs they're getting have been properly handled. Even when the drugs come from a reliable manufacturer, some medications, such as liquid antibiotics, may not get the refrigeration they require. Other drugs may lose potency after only a few months as they sit in storage or may be sold past their expiration dates.

The FDA cautions that potential health risks from imported drugs include:

  • Uncertainties about quality assurance procedures in manufacturing plants not monitored by the FDA
  • Potential counterfeit drugs packaged to look like the real thing
  • Presence of "untested substances" that may be unsafe or not be legal for use in the U.S.
  • Lack of medical supervision of patients taking drugs that require close monitoring and dose adjustment, such as diabetes medications and anticoagulants (blood thinners)
  • Problems with labeling about proper use and storage of medications, or labels that are printed in an unfamiliar language

Good Neighbor Policy

Critics of cross-border pharmacies also warn that regulations that apply to drugs sold within a country to that country's citizens may not apply to drugs sold only for export. They point to Canada, for example, which requires that all drugs sold in Canada to Canadian citizens be approved for use by Health Canada, the federal agency that is the equivalent of the FDA and the CDC in the U.S. But if a drug is made only for export outside Canada, the watchdog agency does not apply the same rules and standards.

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