The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Prescription drugs:
Profits above public safety

Feb 2, 2004

With prescription drug prices shooting through the roof in the U.S., overnight bus trips across the border to Canada to buy drugs have become commonplace. For people who have different ailments and take many drugs, the bus fare and the time invested are certainly worthwhile: on average, name-brand prescription drugs cost 40% less in Canada than they do in the U.S.

These otherwise law-abiding people are actually breaking the law: the U.S. government forbids anyone other than the original U.S. manufacturer to import prescription drugs.

Why? For safety reasons, say the officials of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the politicians in Congress who have passed these laws. They say that they are only trying to protect the American people from hazardous drugs.

What a laugh! Drug safety regulations in Canada and European countries are actually far stricter than in the U.S. Over the past few years, the FDA has been forced to remove from sale more than half a dozen drugs that it had earlier approved because the drugs ended up killing more people than the "accepted" rate. That's not surprising, considering that the FDA has been easing drug approval standards in recent years. The U.S. has reduced the human trial period required to approve a drug from seven years, which Canada has continued to keep. Then, in May, 2002, the FDA lifted the human testing requirement altogether "in some circumstances," under the pretext of fighting bioterrorism.

Besides, the FDA allows the sale of some drugs with well-known, harmful side effects that are banned in other countries. To give an example, in 2002 Bristol-Myers was forced to stop selling Serzone, an anti-depressant, in Canada and Europe after it was found to cause irreparable liver damage. The FDA still allows this drug to be sold in the U.S., only with a warning label on the box saying "Cases of life-threatening hepatic failure have been seen in patients treated with Serzone."

Obviously, the only safety U.S. government officials and politicians are concerned about is the safety of the profits of the pharmaceutical industry.

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Of course, there is another question that naturally comes to mind: why is there such a huge difference in drug prices between the U.S. and Canada when the drugs in question are exactly the same drugs, produced and distributed by the same companies, in both countries?

There is absolutely no logical answer to this question, except that it's the way the capitalist system works. Prices are set as high as "the market will bear," that is, as high as capitalists can charge and still sell their products.